Hometown Sons & Timber across Oceans & Rivers & Time

With this entry a Bio piece on a self-made Timber trader. And though he was only tangentially connected to the world of wooden bridges, I mean to complete the circle and paradoxically reconnect his world with ours. In the doing I mean to make comment on how the endless onslaught of time and change needn’t and shouldn’t mean every last aspect of yesterdays technologies be left to those days that have already slipped by.

The hub of the wheel we’ll spin is George B. McQuesten. I became intrigued by the mans story a few years back while working on the earliest still surviving Wooden bridge to have been built for Railroad use, built by the Boston & Maine in 1889, (see Gleanings from the Grit) and finding his firms merchant stamp on one of the Bolster Beams we were there to replace. Being familiar with the surname, curiosity had me look for a possible connection and sure enough he and I share the same hometown and the same home river. He was born in Litchfield New Hampshire in June of 1817. His family is still there, still farming their patch of the finest bottom land in the State.

George’s self-made success story began at just twelve years of age when he left Litchfield for nearby and then newly industrializing Nashua to tend lock gates on the then recently constructed canal there. He would spend the next nine years tending to and watching the canal boats and the floating commerce and trade of others, before he would himself enter the lumber trade at the still tender age of twenty one. He would for many years do business in both Nashua and Concord, both towns like his birthplace, stand on the banks of the Merrimack River. He would then in 1872 relocate the business to Boston and initially partner with another timber trader as specialist importers of Longleaf Yellow Pine. After Geo. Fogg’s passing, McQuesten & Fogg would be renamed George McQuesten & Co.

The company would for many years specialize in the in the importation of Longleaf, a species important to the boatbuilding trade, which dovetailed nicely with McQuesten importing a non-native species. The Company and in time his namesake son would regularly commission Schooners to be built by a number of area boatyards from Boston to Gloucester to Rockport Maine. They would also trade in Knees and Trunnels, items common to the Boatbuilding Trade. In the McQuesten employ were buyers in the deep south, and their sizable fleet would regularly trip down the coast to ports in Georgia, Floridia and Texas. They would in time add Doug Fir and other West Coast species to their offerings. McQuesten Lumber long held three piers in Boston diagonally across from the Charlestown Navy Yard, and a large yard and headquarters on Border Street. It survives to this day, until this past year at a facility in Billerica Mass, a property it acquired from the Boston & Maine RR in 1955. The McQuesten Company was in 1998 acquired by a Lumber conglomerate, and George’s surname happily will continue to see recognition as a division of this company in their continuing lumber-trading story.

I find the circle made complete, of a life of commerce beginning with canal boats in an emerging mill town to that of a fleet of Schooners plying Bluewater, and shipments amounting to millions of board feet annually flowing through one of the nations best known seaports to be an amazing story worth the telling.

George and his wife Theoline chose to continue to reside in their Nashua home. He lived two days into his seventy fifth year, and together with Theoline is buried at Edgewood Cemetery there in the city.

The once common sight of a wharfside Schooner unloading Timber & Lumber - Photo courtesy of San Francisco National Maritime Museum (Image A12,727nl)

The once common sight of a wharfside Schooner unloading Timber & Lumber – Photo courtesy of San Francisco National Maritime Museum (Image A12,727nl)

Such Schooner borne forest products were commonly crossing the worlds waters well into the 1920’s, moving desirable timber species from their native regions to distant points and seaports. Eastern White Pine was shipped from ports here in Northern New England, It likewise saw shipboard travel in large quantities on The Great Lakes and The St. Lawrence Seaway and points beyond from both Michigan and Wisconsin. Western Species rounded the Cape and are found here in eastern Mill Buildings far earlier than most might expect. And as we see here in the McQuesten story, Longleaf Yellow Pine was being unloaded in ports at distance in quantities almost unfathomable.

And this brings us back to wooden bridges – Some of this timber transversing the continent was for use in the building of bridges. Species specific traits and design values demanded their use in such important constructions even when they were not indigenous to a given area. Northern grown dense ring count Eastern White Pine being the most appropriate species for bridge truss framing, saw it shipped widely for that purpose. Many if not most of hardwood dominated Ohio’s’ bridges were built using Michigan Pine, as were those built built elsewhere in the Midwest. Spruce was likewise, strength to weight ratio similarly favored and traded. Indiana Bridgewright JJ Daniels spent much of the decade of the 1880’s setting up Longleaf Plantations in Mississippi for shipment upriver to his home state.

McQuesten & Co. seemingly had a long relationship with the bridge building division of the B&M. – Their chief of Engineering and lifelong wooden bridge advocate, JP Snow (see Scarfs) specified Longleaf for the Floorbeams and the Bolsters in The Contoocook and many bridges to follow. In later years as native species became unavailable in the then largely deforested North East, McQuesten supplied timber began to appear in the Truss-work itself.

The McQuesten Merchant Stamp seen on a Counter Brace in the Snyder Brook Bridge - A B&M built Boxed Pony dating to 1918

The McQuesten Merchant Stamp seen on a Doug Fir Counter Brace in the Snyder Brook Bridge – A B&M built Boxed Pony Howe dating to 1918

As this story unfolded, and the years flipped by with the change wrought by time and circumstance in just the modes of travel and shipping in this the McQuesten story, from canal Boats to Schooners to a foothold in the world of Wooden Bridges and railroading, and then how the Railroads time has since slipped by – I could not help but reflect on which and what change brought the better, and what was perhaps lost in the often assumed notion that a change in technology is always necessarily for the better, and for how this failure sometimes leads to the better and best being left behind.

That turned to thoughts on Bridgewrighting and change and the struggle to rediscover the unwritten secrets of this almost lost trade. Of how even advocates of wooden bridges see little if any difference between a traditionally joined bridge and one with simple butt cuts and parts coupled by steel fish plates. And of how few understand that camber is in many ways better formed by knowledge and proven method applied by highly trained individuals, than it is in a curved glulam form by people who will likely never see the parts their semi-skilled labor helps create, become part of a completed structure.

Trusses are designed and constructed in such ways not because that system is superior to that of traditionally joined bridges. These methods and materials are chosen by those who either do not realize there is still a group of people capable of such joined timber constructions, or because wood, and wood to wood joints (most structural engineers simply are not trained in the use of wood as a building material) are not seen as viable method, or a building material worthy of trust. This shortsightedness is something I see as rather silly, with existing examples pushing the one hundred eighty year mark still carrying traffic daily, and being that we happen to reside on a planet blessed with Trees.

Joined Timber Bridge Trusses are the time proven methodology. To my mind their superior service life, (Literally multiples in service lives over those of steel or reenforced concrete – Only exceeded by those of the also now largely abandoned Stone Arch) should have wooden truss bridges seeing a resurgence in their construction for spans between seventy and one sixty or so. My hope is that such work might again become reasonably common so that this, my Trade, might prosper and the knowledge base might continue to roll forward with time.

The Boston & Maine's finest still standing example - The Wright's Ca. 1906 features Encased Laminated Arches and Shear Block Joined Hackmatack Knees - The Knees, Trunnels & Floorbeams in all probability supplied by McQuesten & Co. - Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress and The NPS Historic American Buildings Survey / Historic American Engineering Record – Photo Credit Jet Lowe

The Boston & Maine’s finest still standing example – The Wright’s Ca. 1906 features Encased Laminated Arches and Shear Block Joined Hackmatack Knees – The Knees Trunnels & Floorbeams in all probability supplied by McQuesten & Co. – Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress and The NPS Historic American Buildings Survey / Historic American Engineering Record – Photo Credit Jet Lowe

Another Litchfield son made a name for himself, and is perhaps better known than his cousin George, at least his nickname is familiar to most – Leroy Napoleon “Jack” McQuesten left his mark on The Yukon, but that is another story, one that will require we sit, open a bottle and pour a shot or three…


About Will Truax

I'm a timberframer and preservation carpenter, and regularly work on Covered Bridge restoration projects. Bridgewrighting can be a tough row to hoe, for a myriad of reasons. From scheduling issues to differing opinions and philosophies on what is appropriate in methods and materials, to multiple jurisdictions still not sufficiently vetting bidders resumes - Which is to say, just because a company is on that state approved list and capable of building that seven figure overpass, this does not mean they are capable of restoring a wooden bridge... So, I have much to say about all this and more - And despite my tough row observation, I promise not to whine. View all posts by Will Truax

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