A Lament for Mary

In prior entries, I have mentioned my lifelong relationships with place, and with those streams & rivers that divide our landscape and my having come up within sight of Watts Brook and the but a ten minute walk from its confluence with the Merrimack. I now live better than an hours drive north and no longer within earshot of moving water. For twenty plus years I have lived without the lullaby of water, but none so far from it, and almost equidistantly between two branches of the same river, a tributary of that selfsame Merrimack, and none so far from its headwaters at the big lake known as Winnipesaukee – My waters still join the Merrimack, it is still who I am, even with it now being the Suncook which is the river I call home.

With this kinship, I have of course looked into the history it drove, and wondered after the bridges its people built to carry themselves to and fro, as the demands of their days drove their need to cross over the waters which barred their way.

Among the local river stories which might merit a share, is a story of fog and misfortune and loss. This is the story of Mary and her Bridge.

This postcard image is shot from a downstream perspective and over the widening Millpond - Image courtesy of the Pittsfield Historical Society

This postcard image appears here as a courtesy of the Pittsfield Historical Society

On Thursday the 8th of January 1874, twenty six year old Mary Bodge was nearing the end of her long walk to work from Barnstead to one of the many mills in neighboring Pittsfield, and she crossed the Suncook on what sounds like some sort of low slung simple rope and board bridge. Several clues in descriptions of the days events suggest the day was part of a January thaw. At some point during the day rising water and ice flow saw two concerned town residents disconnect the bridge and draw it over to the west bank for fear that it would become entangled in the ice flows. Nightfall would descend without the bridge being returned to position.

Colorized postcard image courtesy of both The National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges – Richard Sanders Allen collection & The Covered Spans of Yesteryear – Lost Bridges Database

Colorized postcard image courtesy of both The National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges – Richard Sanders Allen collection & The Covered Spans of Yesteryear – Lost Bridges Database

Mary would leave the mill for the return trip home under cover of darkness, the light of a waning moon greatly diminished by a heavy fog. As she worked to retrace and reverse her mornings footfalls, she stepped off the rivers bank unaware the bridge was no longer in place. Her cries for help quickly brought people to the rivers edge, though not before she had slipped below the surface of the ice filled waters surface.

With the light of day the river was repeatedly dragged with grapples launched across the widening millpond with cannon-fire, (The river begins its transition from stream to millpond just below this point) these efforts proved to be unsuccessful. A sum of money was raised to bring a diver up from Boston, that call for help was reversed when on Saturday Mary’s body was discovered below the dam.

The view has changed little in the 110 years which have passed since this 1905 postcard was issued

The view from this dam-side perspective has changed little in the 110 years which have passed since this now public domain 1905 postcard was issued

The funeral was held the next day at The Free Will Baptist Church, (The Randall line of the FWBC – A denomination begun in the town north of Mary’s birthplace and unique to the greater Lakes Region) a huge crowd of fellow workers in attendance. A local grand hotel donated use of eighteen carriages to bring attendants to the graveside service in Center Barnstead.

Two months later at Town Meeting the town voted to raise $1200 to build a Covered Bridge in the location where Mary met her end. Additional monies were placed in capitol reserve the following three years. A bridgewright was contracted in 1879 to build a 130′ Town Lattice Bridge for a sum just in excess of $3000. As a memorial and in rememberance the span would be known as Mary’s Bridge.

In the Historical Marker's background which stands adjacent to the current concrete deck bridge we see the frozen Suncook

In the Historical Marker’s background which stands adjacent to the current concrete deck bridge we see the frozen Suncook

There are records of repairs on several occasions, and a need to raise the bridge several feet, the floor would be replanked in 1907. The hard look this availed perhaps exposed issues with the Bottom Chords, as talk of poor condition seems to have begun at this time. Soon thereafter Mary’s Bridge was “deemed unsafe”

This image is courtesy of the archives of the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges - Richard E. Roy Collection

This image is courtesy of the Archives of the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges – Richard E. Roy Collection

A service life of such a short duration is beyond uncharacteristic of covered spans. In no surviving image is either balustrade of either sidewalk seen as boarded in, and as can be seen in the image to the left, the overhangs and their drip-lines do not appear to have cleared the sidewalks. Though there were dissenting voices at the deciding Town Meeting, voters would opt for replacement. At but thirty short years, Mary’s Bridge would outlive Mary by only four years.

It was removed in 1909 with a charge of dynamite. In a report in the Valley Times, the blast for demolition was described with a sense of seeming admiration – “The work was most skillfully done”

As was common of towns a Truss Type is often seen as preferable - H.W. Osgood was a local Pittsfield photographer in practice during the 1880's - The Barnstead Road Bridge had a single sidewalk and was later boarded in - It was removed in 1934 as part of a WPA makework project

Pittsfield’s other covered span, The Barnstead Road Bridge – As was common of towns a Truss Type is often seen as preferable – Pittsfield’s preference was Town Trusses – H.W. Osgood publisher of this postcard image was a local Pittsfield photographer in practice during the 1880’s – This bridge had a single sidewalk and later images show The Barnstead Road as fully boarded in – It would be removed in 1934 as part of a WPA makework project – One of many such depression era faux stone arch concrete rigid frame replacement bridges built in the state

The Bridgewright Blog would like to thank The Pittsfield Historical Society for inspiration and assistance in the preparation of this Lament for Mary and her lost Memorial Bridge.

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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

3 responses to “A Lament for Mary

  • Tim Berry

    Great story Will. I recently looked at the photo as part of a discussion on Facebook about village style bridges and attached walkways. I didn’t cite it as an example because I wasn’t sure if it had two walkways or one….

    Like

  • Larry Berkson

    Where is the acknowledgment of the Pittsfield Historical Society which supplied pictures and information?

    Like

    • Will Truax

      Larry –

      Acknowledgement and accreditation for the photo used is right there in the caption of the picture you were kind enough to allow use of.

      Use of the other image you handed off was offered by several entities, I went with the best of the digital images supplied.

      Though both the Historical Marker (which I surmise stands in thanks both to you and The Society) and your article in the Sun were the spark for this entry, Mary’s story and that of her long lost memorial bridge were drawn from a number of sources found in researching this piece, and from observations found in surviving photographs and knowledge of what is reasonably expectant in the service life of a “Covered” wooden bridge through truss…

      Had I any sense from you when I asked after images for Mary’s story that you wished to review the entry prior to release, I would have afforded you that opportunity.

      Are you suggesting I have done something untoward?

      Like

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