Monthly Archives: March 2013

A Riddle’s Answer – Exemplifies the Why

As followup to last months Riddle entry – A deeper look at this third and last of those late 18th Century New Hampshire wooden spans often also described as groundbreaking firsts on the national stage, this squint does find our Riddle, in some measure solved. We do now know who contracted this long multiple span bridge to be built. This in itself is a hugely interesting story, particularly from a local history perspective.

Seemingly missing from our ever unwinding scroll of recorded history are those answers to what from my perspective, are the far more interesting questions. Those being who designed it, who framed it, how the truss-work was configured, and what did this piece of yesterday look like?

These multiple missing pieces, despite long ago prompts that this was structurally somehow a significant ahead of its time multi-span bridge, sometimes described as a first in true truss bridges – An enticing bit of plausible real information sadly intertwined with an oft repeated bit of misinformation. These details of the structural specifics of this long span wooden bridge are pages of our common history that are sadly and seemingly, forever lost to us.

This first bridge at this crossing, The Amoskeag Bridge (not to be confused with Amoskeag Falls Bridge which was built at a later date and upstream of this crossing) like most every other in that period, was built by a for profit company formed expressly for this purpose. This both to collect tolls. And to attract traffic to the area as an unknown convenience and option superior to then available ferries to those traveling to, or more importantly and more profitably, those moving goods and materials or driving stock to points west of the Merrimack.

In October of 1792 a Boston paper announced the completed construction of the six span five hundred and fifty six foot Amoskeag with this brief blurb –

The Principal in this effort, Robert McGregor, was a mover and a shaker of his time. And arguably had hand in shaping both the Nation and the State. And while he is not forgotten to history, it is almost confusing that his many efforts and accomplishments are as under-realized and little acknowledged as they now are.

His National front efforts begin with service in the Revolution in which he rose to rank of Colonel and served as Aide de Camp to General Stark. Robert would a decade later, while a member of the State Legislature attend a special meeting at Exeter and vote with the majority to ratify the United States Constitution.

Col. McGregor seems to have left the war effort about the same time as his commanding officer, and would purchase land just downriver and on the opposite bank from the mill the General ran in Derryfield just above Amoskeag Falls. Years later Stark was heard to say, when the charter was sought and potential stockholders were thinking of investing in his former subordinates Amoskeag Bridge Company “Zounds – Build a roadway over the Merrimack? Man alive, you nor I will ever live to see it done!”

General John would then go on to cross The Amoskeag for some twenty years.

A first in a long series of varied businesses McGregor would engage in in the coming decades, would be that of his former commander. Beginning in the mid 1780’s Robert would long own and operate a series of area sawmills. (This clearly would have had him long knowing the area’s carpenter’s & millwrights – Both being groups of highly skilled people capable of sophisticated framing – Who did he choose to design and frame his bridge?) He became active in Goffstown politics, for many years serving as Selectman, and serving as Moderator for much of the 90’s – He simultaneously served many terms in the State House which was at this time still meeting in the former colonial capitol of Portsmouth. Robert’s business pursuits were many and varied, he for a time even held a license to sell “Spirituous Liquors” Two years after the Bridge Company completed its endeavor Robert would become principal in the Isle of Hooksett Canal Company. Among numerous other cooperative ventures he would in time be counted among the founding Proprietors of The Amoskeag Cotton & Woolen Mill.

For many years after this subsection of Goffstown was annexed to the City of Manchester, the area of the city served by the west bank end of the Amoskeag Bridge was known as McGregorville. The third of the replacement bridges to span this crossing would also go on to carry the name McGregor.

As it turns out, the confusion which was the root of our Riddle, was a long ago crossing up of the chronology of this crossing, a jumbling of just who built which iteration when – Wm. Riddle’s bridge building concern was contracted to build a replacement for the then breifly abandoned Amoskeag. This the second in the string of spans to bridge this crossing, built for a newly formed shareholder owned toll-bridge company, “The Proprietors of Amoskeag Bridge” their replacement was completed in November of 1825. The “Proprietors” in 1838 would go on to sell their bridge to The Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, then expanding its mills to also encompass the east bank of the river. (In time becoming the largest mill complex in the world) Riddle’s bridge would ultimately be carried away by a freshet in 1851. Though it was clearly also a wooden bridge, we know little of it, and as with its predecessor, neither a sketch nor a landscape painting seems to survive to suggest for us either its framing configuration or outward appearance.

The record suggests a quite literal gap of thirty years would pass before The Amoskeag Company would replace their bridge. This they would build with twin decks, the upper to serve the city, the lower to serve mill operations and their employees.

The Bridge Street or McGregor Bridge stood at this location from 1881 - 1936 - A three plus span Lenticular Truss built by the Berlin Iron Bridge Co. - Photo courtesy of HABS / HAER and the Library of Congress

The Bridge Street or McGregor Bridge stood at this location from 1881 – 1936 – A three plus span Lenticular Truss built by the Berlin Iron Bridge Co. – Photo courtesy of HABS / HAER and the Library of Congress – The photographer’s name, and the date this image was taken are unknown

The above advertisement placed by the Berlin Iron Bridge Company in the Engineering News and American Contract Journal in 1884 pictures their incarnation of the bridge then known as The McGregor, this twin deck bridge an obvious point of pride they had built three years prior.

Here we see the upper deck of The McGregor as seen from Canal Street on the east side of the city. The Lenticuler Pony Truss in the foreground bridged a no longer existing canal and the Boston & Maine’s rail-bed. This span can be seen on the left end of the above advertisement. Berlin’s iron bridge would serve the city for fifty five years until it was lost to highwater in the Great Flood of 1936.

Here the torrent of flood water can be seen battering The McGregor in the distance - It would hold out until highwater reached the level of the upper deck - Photo courtesy of The National Archives OPA - Archive Identifier: 6252792

Here the torrent of flood water can be seen battering The McGregor in the distance – It would hold out until highwater reached the level of the upper deck on 20 March – Photo courtesy of The National Archives OPA – Archive Identifier: 6252792

In time the shifting makeup of the city’s population, driven by patterns of employment by the milling corporation which shared the name Amoskeag, would see both the neighborhood on the west bank and the Bridge at this crossing come to be known as Notre Dame.

The Notre Dame built in 1936/37 stood in the location of the 1792 Amoskeag until its 1989 demolition - Post Card image courtesy of The Boston Public Library

The Notre Dame built in 1936/37 stood in the location of the 1792 Amoskeag until its 1989 demolition – Post Card image courtesy of The Boston Public Library

The 1792 Amoskeag Bridge venture though both an immediate success, and having had the lasting effect of to this day shaping the face of and traffic patterns to and through the City, seems to have in the years that followed, been one of Robert McGregor’s few profit failures. In 1796 the Proprietors petitioned the General Court for an increase in tolls, “’The prayer of their petition was granted” The failure to realize any profit on investment seemingly continued, Being open to the weather the giant would see an exceedingly short service life. By 1812 it was judged to be “impassable to teams” – Those on foot did continue to cross at their own peril for some years.

Though the bridges primary purpose, of a realized return on investment for the stockholders of the Amoskeag Bridge Company never came to pass, Robert’s obvious secondary purpose was amazingly & blazingly successful – It forever changed commerce, in that area he knew best, and held as home.

With its short service life limiting any potential return or profit on this speculative venture, perhaps the well known Amoskeag may well have served as example to those near and far that an investment in any wooden bridge should and would best be protected by simple sets of cladding & roofing –

Looking upstream under the current concrete deck bridge - The fifth span to cross at this location - The fourth to stand as replacement for the city shaping Amoskeag

Looking upstream under the current concrete deck bridge – The fifth span to cross at this location – The fourth to stand as replacement for the city shaping Amoskeag

Just downstream an empty set of piers now serving little more than childhood wonder

Just downstream an empty set of piers now serving little more than childhood wonder

The Bridgewright Blog would like to thank the staff of The Manchester Historic Association Research Center for their cooperation and assistance in locating source materials during research in preparation for this Riddle’s Answer entry.