by John Fiske, chairman, Ipswich Historical Commision
Three thoughtful gentlemen from the American Society of Civil Engineers came to the February meeting of the Ipswich Historical Commission. They plan to designate our Choate Bridge as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, because it is “the oldest documented two-span masonry arch bridge in the United States.”
Of course, we already knew that, but it’s nice to have it officially recognized, and to that end, the Ipswich Historical Commission has declared May 16 to be Choate Bridge Day, complete with festivities and unveiling of the plaque (an announcement is forthcoming).
By happy coincidence, 2015 is near enough the 250th anniversary of the Choate Bridge – construction was completed in the fall of 1764. The ASCE’s previous awards include San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and New York’s George Washington Bridge. So we’re in good company. Actually, on second thoughts, I should put that the other way round, now they are in good company. Read on and you’ll see why.
For two and a half centuries the Choate Bridge has carried all the traffic up and down the main coastal road between Boston and Portsmouth. In 1838 it needed to be widened to two lanes. The newer Route 1 and the yet newer I-95 now take much of the traffic, but the Choate Bridge still handles more than 20,000 vehicles a day. It carries everything on the road, and that includes bicycles, 18-wheelers, pedestrians, and occasionally, houses! In 1927 the Whipple House was taken across the bridge it to its new site on South Green.)
In 1989 (225 years after it was built) the bridge was renovated for the first and only time; it is now, we assume, well set for the next couple of centuries. I bet it’ll be in good shape on its 500th anniversary. Hang on to that thought while I point out that modern steel bridges like those on our interstates have an expected life-span of about 75 years. Hmm, point taken. It is no wonder that the ASCE wants to honor our bridge.
In its day, the Choate Bridge was as huge an engineering breakthrough as the Golden Gate Bridge, or at least, in New England it was. There had been a wooden bridge over the Ipswich River since the early 1640s, but wooden bridges need upkeep, and Essex County was fed up with the costs involved. So they commissioned their treasurer, Colonel John Choate, to come up with a better bridge, and the one he came up with was a stone bridge with arches built on the keystone principle.
Now New England was (and still is) timber country, and timber does not do well with curved arches. The townsfolk of 1764 hardly ever saw a curved arch – if they saw one at all. All doorways, windows and, of course, bridges were flat-topped, so predictably, they were skeptical that a keystone arch could hold up. But John Choate was not to be dissuaded, and in six months he built the new bridge for a cost of £1,000 – which seems like good going to me.
On the day of the grand opening, the skepticism still ran deep. The townsfolk were convinced that the stones would go tumbling into the river as soon as the trestles and scaffolding were removed.
Passions ran dangerously high, and, as an undated issue of the Boston Post reported,“Col. Choate was the object upon which the surcharged feelings of the people were directed, culminating in a threat that his life would pay for it if the bridge collapsed…Relays of swift horses were established (or so the story goes), sufficient to carry him out of the county, and on the morning of the opening of the bridge, instead of proudly viewing the vindication of his faith, he was forced to sit in the saddle armed with pistols, surrounded by friends, awaiting the possibility of a summons to fly. Instead came the cheering cry of success, and when the bridge had been crossed and recrossed without the slightest hint of giving way, the crowd marched to where Choate was and with the greatest show of honor led him to witness his triumph.”
It’s a dramatic story, even if somewhat improbable: surely Choate had greater faith than that in his design! We note that the Boston Post was founded in 1831, long after the opening of the bridge, and plenty long enough for a local legend to have grown into “historical truth.”
When the Golden Gate Bridge was completed in 1937 its 4,200 foot central span was the longest single span in the world. At a mere 80 feet, six inches, the two arches of the Choate Bridge can hardly compete. The George Washington Bridge is the most heavily trafficked bridge in the world, and our 20,000+ vehicles a day can’t compete with that, not that I think we’d want to. But our little, homey Choate Bridge has done everything we’ve asked it to for over 250 years. And it will continue doing just that for the next 250, when its larger, more famous siblings will have been rebuilt a couple of times, and whose original structures are no more than flakes of rust floating down the river. They can’t compete with that.