A Chapter of Local Bridge and Ferry History.
Historically the Old Bridge Dated Back to 1804,
and Had Been Rebuilt Five Times.
The timbers in the old Hinsdale bridge, which was removed from its foundation last Friday, were entirely cleared away Saturday and Monday. Some of them will be used in the false work during the construction of the new steel bridge. The old timbers were found to be badly decayed, and the contractors for the new bridge say it is a wonder that the bridge had stood up under the heavy loads which have been put upon it by the bridge men. It was sustained entirely by the wooden arches. The stone is all out for abutment at the west end, and the structural steel was completed several weeks ago. It is now being loaded for shipment from Elmira, N. Y. Work on the abutment will be pushed as rapidly as possible, as well as upon the temporary work on which the new bridge will be erected. The placing of the steel is expected to begin in course of a month. No date is fixed at which the bridge will probably be done, but the time will not be less than two months. J. H. Hoff, the vice president of the company, is in charge of the construction. Mr. Kittredge, who has charge of the stone work, came Monday night to remain a few days.
Historically speaking, the old bridge dates back to the year 1804, when the first bridge across the Connecticut river at this point was built and opened. The date of the acceptance of the bridge was Nov. 27, 1804. It was built by a corporation formed under the laws of New Hampshire, under the name of "The Proprietors of the Hinsdale Bridge and Sixth New Hampshire Turnpike Corporation," the purpose of the company being to bridge the Connecticut at Brattleboro, and also to build and operate a turnpike from the New Hampshire end of the bridge through the towns of Hinsdale and Winchester to the Warwick line in Massachusetts. The date of acceptance of the bridge over "the creek," now known as the "little river" bridge, is not known, but it was probably accepted and used soon after the opening of the main bridge.
These bridges stood until 1820, when it was found necessary to rebuild the one over the Connecticut river. The construction of the second bridge proved defective, and a new arch bridge was built in its place. The bridge over "the creek" was carried away in the winter of 1824-5, and it was rebuilt the following summer. In 1831 both bridges were rebuilt. At that time the main bridge was built as a covered "X" bridge. In January, 1843, the bridge across "the creek" was swept away by a freshet, and was replaced the following season. This bridge proved a failure, however, and an "X" bridge was built in its place in 1844. The corporate name of the company owning the bridges was changed to "The Hinsdale Bridge Corporation" in that year.
February 19, 1857, the main bridge was swept away by immense masses of ice which had formed during the unusually cold winter and were brought down by a freshet. The bridge was deposited on the meadow near Vernon village. The pier in the middle of the stream was then carried away down to low water mark. The pier and bridge were rebuilt that year, Dexter Moore of Newfane having the contract.
The third week of April, 1862, brought the highest water ever known in the Connecticut at this point. In this freshet the "little river" bridge was carried away, and the main bridge was seriously damaged. It was at this time that the island, then owned by N. F. Cabot, and in a high state of farm cultivation, was practically ruined. The house and out-buildings were carried away, the large barn alone remaining. A bridge brought down from some point above, and lodged on the upper end of the island, diverted the course of the river in such a manner that a channel from 8 to 12 feet deep was cut through the island, and through this the main current flowed for 48 hours. The West river bridge was carried away in this freshet. The "little river" bridge was rebuilt and the main bridge repaired during the summer following the freshet.
In the great freshet of 1869 the main bridge was wrecked and carried away. It was not the main current of the Connecticut river which did the mischief on this occasion, but the raging volume which poured down the Whetstone brook and ploughed its way straight across the river and undermined the east abutment, causing the bridge to break in the middle. The bridge was rebuilt during the following winter so as to allow passengers to cross, but was not completed and covered in until the following summer, when the eastern span was lengthened some 40 feet and the channel of the river widened to that extent as it now exists. The work of rebuilding was done under the charge of the late S. M. Waite. With necessary repairs, including the introduction of wooden arches a few years ago, the bridge has stood in the form as then erected until the present time. It was a toll bridge until 1888, when on Saturday morning, Dec. 1st, it was thrown open to the free use of the public by the joint vote and action of the towns of Brattleboro and Hinsdale.
When the bridge was originally built in 1804, it was an event of such local importance that it was marked by a public celebration, with speeches and other ceremonies. The orator of the occasion was Hon. Samuel Elliot, then a young man. The speaker's stand was erected on the bridge, and the people crowded in closely in order to hear the speaker. The weight caused the timbers to crack, and it is a matter of verbal tradition, probably authentic, that the speaker suddenly stopped and cried out to his auditors, "Run, run like hell. The bridge is going down." No damage to the bridge followed, however, and the oration and other ceremonies were duly completed.
The having a ferry by Mr. Brown at the Brooks place is going back to old times. That has been a crossing place since 1723, when Col. John Stoddard and Lieut. Timothey Dwight came to locate and build Fort Dummer. They came by way of Northfield and crossed the river on the ice. The principal travel up the river came that way afterwards, and there was much passing between Shattuck's fort on the meadow, Hinsdale's fort at the Liscum place, and Fort Dummer after they were built about 1735. Such a ferry right with the privilege of taking toll is a franchise, and to be well founded must be granted by the sovereign power, which at that place, as the river is all in New Hampshire, has, since the Revolution, been the legislature of that state. Before that it was the King of Great Britain through the Royal Governor.
Jan. 2, 1786, James Hubbard made a petition for a ferry "over Connecticut river against where the Fort called Dummer formerly stood." That was at this place. In the petition he set forth that he owned the land, and had a dwelling house about eight rods from the ferry landing on the east side of the river, which was the only house within half a mile of there. The right was granted at the June session of the legislature in 1786. That was the only crossing place near here till one was made from the foot of the road leading down by the machine shop to the electric power house across to the island. This was Barrett's ferry, and the landing on this side was where the north end of the railroad arch stands. There was no road down the brook on the south side below the Main street bridge till the Connecticut river bridge was built in 1804. The rocks there came up to the brook, making a deep gorge, till they were blasted away to make the road to the river bridge. The only road leading to the river on the south side of the brook was the one in front of Young's grocery store that went down around through where the depot grounds are to "little spruce island," which is the lower one. Governor Wentworth's little grist mill for the use of settlers was put in above the bridge where Emerson's furniture store is in 1762, and Judge Wells's saw mill in 1767. Matthew Martin built a grist mill and a saw mill below the falls on the north side next to the road leading to the ferry, and river boats came to the ferry landing. After the bridge was built both ferries went out of use. In those days a capstan stood at the end of the bridge for drawing the river boats up over the rapid water below, and the long rope, when not in use, was stored in the bridge.
A description of ice breaking up on the river in January 1839:
"Saturday January 26 Rain fast and steady all day and evening. the river broke up and cleared. Scithed slaughter upper leather. What is there in nature that will compare in sublimity and grandeur to rolling march of a might river as it winds its course on through the valley to its mouth where it is lost in the mighty depths But when we see it sweeping along with current the mighty works of men which have cost much wonderful skill and such an amount of property and labour to contrive and effect them it gives us testimony of a Power that is far above the power of mortal man. I have never before witnessed a scene so awful and sublime as that which I have now just beheld in the swelling and commotion of the old Connecticut. The river was covered with thick and unbroken ice about six o clock this evening when it gave way under the swell and pressure of the stream caused by the breaking up and pouring in of the West river. The ice came down in enormous masses and bridges trees and mills came bounding down the current and dashing against the shoveres (sic) and the pier of the bridge at this place with a velocity that was astonishing and fearful Multitudes of people gathered upon the banks expecting every moment to see the bridge leave its foundation and pass down the stream. but they were happily disappointed although [it] trembled and cracked at each minute still it weathered storm and escaped with but little injury"
William Lewis Diary