Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Great Bridge Over the Charles

Today, the big transportation issue people are talking about in Cambridge is the T. It affects individuals, businesses, and local government. In the first two hundred years after Cambridge was settled, however, the construction and maintenance of bridges across the Charles River had just as broad-reaching an effect. While we depend on bridges today, and a bridge closing or new bridge would certainly draw attention, as compared with the years through the mid-nineteenth century, we take bridges for granted.

When Puritans settled Boston and Cambridge in 1630, the two towns were very far apart, not just in distance, but because of natural obstacles and the methods of transportation available. The first ferry in Cambridge, which left from the foot of Dunster street, began running in 1635. It crossed the Charles and docked in Brookline. A traveler would follow the road through Brookline and Roxbury to Boston.1 However, ferries were unreliable for a variety of reasons: they ran infrequently, and stopped in the winter when the river froze. The people decided they needed a bridge to carry Cambridge products, such as cattle and surplus crops, to the market in Boston. It had become increasingly clear over the past few decades that Cambridge was not developing into a center of trade the way its neighbor was.2

Like most decisions in the first few generations of settlement in Cambridge, the one to build a bridge was made communally, with the support of church members. In 1656, the town meeting decided “to pay each one their proportion of a rate to the sum of 200l. Towards the building a bridge over Charles River.”3 It was completed eight years later. The bridge went across the river, through Roxbury, and across Boston Neck (the narrow strip of land connecting Boston, which was then a peninsula, to the mainland), and the total journey spanned eight miles. The bridge was simply called the Great Bridge.4 
While it was a public project, the responsibility for the Bridge was debated within Cambridge. In the middle of the seventeenth century, there were ongoing tensions between the Cambridge government and the residents of the part of the town on the south side of the river. The residents of the south side felt distinct from the center of town, and repeatedly petitioned to have their own parish or township status. In 1661, three leading south side residents refused to pay their share towards the money the town was spending on the Great Bridge, and the Cambridge selectmen ordered the constable to seize the men's property equal to the amount of the dues.5 In the 1680s, the area did separate from Cambridge to become Newton.

The Great Bridge spanned the Charles at a time when the river was much wider than it is today. The bridge was large, wooden, and very expensive to maintain. In 1670, the General Court of Massachusetts observed that the bridge was decayed enough to be dangerous. The bridge had been funded by Cambridge citizens and by voluntary contributions from residents of a few neighboring towns, but now Cambridge declared that it was unable to pay for repairs.6 The General Court knew how important it was not to have to go back to using a ferry to stay connected with Boston. The Court stated that a ferry is “not so safe, convenient, or useful, as a bridge, for a ferry is altogether useless in the winter, and is very inconvenient to transport horses, and not at all accommodable for carts or droves of cattle.”7

The Court declared that any person or town that could repair the Great Bridge or build a new bridge would have the authority to collect tolls as long as the bridge was serviceable.8 However, from the 1680's forward, the General Court divided the responsibility for the upkeep of the bridge between the county of Middlesex and several towns who benefited from the bridge.9 In 1734, Cambridge, Newton, and Lexington were each given a land grant to enable them to continue to repair the bridge.10

While the Great Bridge caused decades of discussion about who was responsible for maintaining it, at one pivotal moment, maintenance was not the goal. On April 19, 1775, Lord Percy led British soldiers from Boston to Lexington as reinforcements in the battle that became known as the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the Revolutionary War. In order to slow the advancing British troops, patriots tore up the planks of the Great Bridge and piled them on the Cambridge side of the Charles River.11 Percy's brigade was slowed, but not stopped. The planks on the bridge were later replaced.

The Great Bridge was torn down and rebuilt in 1862, and replaced again in 1915 on the same site, at the foot of JFK Street. This is the Anderson Memorial Bridge, which is still in use today.12 The West Boston Bridge was built in 1793, shortening the distance to Boston considerably.13 While the debates over who would pay for the upkeep of this one important central bridge became less consequential as the Great Bridge was joined by many other bridges in Cambridge in the late 1700's and the 1800's, the building of bridges continued to be a topic of debate. In the nineteenth century, several important bridges were built by private companies, who had the right to charge tolls for a prescribed number of years. The competition between these companies shaped the bridges but also local roads and had ramifications for business and the law.

1Paige, Lucius. History of Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1630-1877. (H. O. Houghton and company, 1877), 195.
2Thomson, Roger. Cambridge Cameos: Stories of Life in Seventeenth-Century New England. (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2005), 23.
3Records of the Town of Cambridge (Formerly Newetowne) Massachusetts, 1630-1703, quoted in Paige 195. November 10, 1656.
4Seaburg, Alan. Cambridge on the Charles. (Cambridge: Anne Miniver Press, 2001, 12.
5Thomson 142.
6Records quoted in Paige 195. October 12, 1670.
7Records quoted in Paige 195. October 12, 1670.
8Records quoted in Paige 196. October 12, 1670.
9Paige 196.
10Paige 196.
11Marean, Emma Endicott. “The River Charles” Merrill, Estelle, ed. Cambridge Sketches by Cambridge Authors. Cambridge Young Women’s Christian Association. (Boston: The Pinkham Press, 1896), 170.
12Seaburg 12.
13Seaburg 12.


  1. Ah... infrastructure! I try to imagine how they actually built a bridge like this in the seventeenth century...with mules, hauling pilings? What an undertaking that must have been.

  2. A huge undertaking, indeed. It's no wonder they called it "Great."