Build the Mystic River Bridge

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One of the two overhead “balance beams” that would hold the concrete counterweights is in place when the bridge was assembled in the spring of 1922. The two “drive wheels” that control the movements of the bridge are also visible. (Courtesy of Jim Streeter and the Connecticut Department of Transportation)

The bridge was nearly completed in the spring of 1922. Most of the year-long construction was spent on the foundations. The superstructure was prefabricated in Pittsburgh and assembled once the parts were shipped to Mystic. (Courtesy of Jim Streeter and the Connecticut Department of Transportation)

The Mystic River Bridge, seen from the Groton side, rises in 1922, shortly after its completion. The building on the right is the Gilbert Block, which was still a shell after a fire seven years earlier. It was later rebuilt and still exists. (Connecticut Department of Transportation)

This technical drawing, dated May 23, 1920, was one of twelve produced by consulting engineer Waddell & Son for the State of Connecticut that showed plans for the Mystic River Bridge according to the design patented by Thomas E. Brown two years earlier. (Connecticut Department of Transportation)

The fire whistle sounded through downtown Mystic, setting off an event the village had long awaited.

On the Groton side, a delegation of officials set out from the Mystic Hook and Ladder Co., while at Stonington another contingent left the BF Hoxie Engine Co. Both groups, sporting silk hats and led by marching bands, were soon on Main Street, facing each other on opposite approaches to the Mystic River Bridge.

With a crowd close at hand and car horns blaring, the Stonington group watched the lift bay, adorned with flags and streamers, rise perpendicular to the street. Groton officials saw two tall counterweights descend until they almost touched the ground.

On July 19, 1922, one hundred years ago this week, Mystic celebrated the opening of its new bridge. A century later, a one-year anniversary celebration is underway.

In the meantime, the bridge has gone from modern marvel to part of the landscape. He withstood hurricanes, admitted the arrival of the whaler Charles W. Morgan, and starred in the movie “Mystic Pizza.” It is the hinge linking the two halves of the village.

Although it may seem like it has always been there, the bridge had a beginning like anything else. Here is the story of the creation of a southeast Connecticut landmark.

* * *

Mystic’s previous bridge opening wasn’t exactly celebratory. On Tuesday, September 20, 1904, authorities announced that a new steel swing bridge would be ready for use in two days.

“There will be no celebrations on Thursday,” The Day noted, “because the townspeople think they have nothing to get excited about.”

Why that is unclear, but they were even less enthusiastic when the bridge opened a day early.

“A lot of inconvenience has been caused (to) the people who walked and drove to the temporary bridge… only to find the lane blocked,” The Day said.

The swing bridge was a leap into the future because it did something its 1866 iron predecessor couldn’t: carry trams. The Groton & Stonington Street Railway Co. paid half the cost of the bridge, which is part of a new tramway line from Groton to Westerly.

But the bridge, with its signature green paint job, soon lived up to its joyless welcome. The foundations settled unevenly and the draw was freezing open, causing infuriating travel delays.

Another problem was that the whole thing pivoted on a central pier in the Mystic River, leaving two narrow channels that were difficult to navigate.

In 1919, after only 15 years, the authorities were looking to replace it, and the timing was perfect: their new bridge had just been invented.

* * *

According to a 1926 book called “Movable Bridges”, tilting spans are, in the basic sense, “those in which one end rises while the other falls”. At the time, many designs had been patented, “and some are vigorously promoted by patentees”.

Several engineers were prolific in patenting flip-flops. William Scherzer invented the “rolling-lift” type, of which Niantic’s railroad bridge was an example. Joseph Strauss’ ‘heel-trunnion’ design was used for the Thames River Railway Bridge.

Thomas Ellis Brown was not an early bridge innovator. As chief engineer of Otis Elevator Co., he brought elevators to the Eiffel Tower and New York’s Woolworth Building, then the tallest in the world. But a bridge design contest in Brooklyn, NY, caught his eye in 1896, and he and his son went on to hold a dozen patents for seesaw designs.

At the end of 1916, Brown submitted his latest idea to the United States Patent Office. In five pages, he described a problem and proposed a solution.

In existing weighbridge designs balanced by overhead counterweights, if the bridge rose 90 degrees, the beams holding the counterweights had to remain parallel to the span and descend 90 degrees to maintain balance. This posed design difficulties that increased costs.

Brown’s proposal kept the two sides in balance despite the beams moving at a smaller angle than the bridge.

Analyzing the idea later, an eminence of civil engineering named JAL Waddell wrote that Brown had “succeeded in producing the most economical scale with overhead counterweight yet evolved”.

Brown was granted patent #1,270,925 on July 2, 1918. This was around the time Mystic’s patience with its hesitant swing bridge reached its limit.

* * *

The impact of the swing bridge issues extended beyond Mystic. Main Street was part of Route 1, the busiest of Connecticut’s 14 major roads. These had been designated in 1907 as “Main Lines” to be improved by the state in response to increased automobile traffic.

The State Highway Department could have opted for a better swing bridge, but it would not have widened the river channel. He considered a vertical lift bridge, but the height clearance needed was impractical.

This left something of a swing, and officials settled on the Brown Balance Beam design, based on the inventor’s 1918 patent. No bridge of this type had yet been built.

Beams holding towering concrete counterweights would only drop 69 degrees to lift the draw completely vertical. There was another novelty: powered by electric motors, the bridge moved by means of two drive wheels above the roadway, called “bull wheels”, which also locked the bridge in place when closed. .

Details emerged in a series of drawings in 1920 with Waddell as consulting engineer and Brown as consulting engineer. Construction began in July 1921.

The first order of business was creating a temporary bridge to hold Mystic together through the downsides of the next 12 months. It was built north of the swing bridge and linked Gravel Street to Holmes Street.

Then the swing bridge was dismantled, and for a few days the occasional daredevil tried to continue using it “although nothing remains of the old bridge but a skeleton”, said The Day. “Several who tried to cross on the beams found their courage less than they imagined.”

For the rest of 1921 and the winter of 1922, the site was a maze of derricks and cofferdams as JE Fitzgerald Construction Co. of New London, the general contractor, worked under the Mystic River clearing the old foundations and building new ones. more solid.

On February 23, the center pier of the swing bridge was detonated with explosives. This left a channel 75 feet wide.

At the beginning of April, the substructure was finished: an abutment on each side and three pairs of piers. All it needed was a bridge to put them on.

* * *

Max Bendett, a downtown merchant, couldn’t imagine how long construction would take. Just before Christmas, he had bet AR Collier, the project’s resident engineer, a box of cigars that the new bridge could not be crossed on foot by May 15.

As April dawned, Bendett seemed on course to win his bet. There was nothing but empty space where the bridge was supposed to be. But that wasn’t because the superstructure hadn’t been built. It was just built somewhere else.

The American Bridge Co., a subsidiary of US Steel, held the contract for the superstructure and had been working for months at its headquarters near Pittsburgh. The company had pre-made steel parts ready to ship to Mystic as soon as the piles were ready. Their assembly did not take long.

On May 15, as the bridge was rapidly taking shape, Collier summoned Bendett, crossed it carefully, then picked up his cigars.

Engineers wanted the bridge open by July 4, and they didn’t miss much. On July 10, the roadway was cleared of debris and a car carrying Thomas Brown became the first automobile to cross.

Brown stayed in New London and continued to innovate. By April 29, he had filed his latest patent application, which improved on his counterweight idea and included aspects of the Mystic design, including bull wheels. He received his last patent, No. 1,519,189, posthumously in 1924.

Two days into Brown’s river trip, the bridge quietly opened to traffic.

* * *

That did nothing to dampen the July 19 celebration, when travelers had been using the bridge for a week. That day, carts started crossing and demolition began on the temporary bridge.

A ceremony was to formalize everything.

“It is little wonder that the opening of the bridge is celebrated,” wrote The Day. “It means a lot to everyone and the event is one that should receive all the recognition it can get.”

That evening, as the crowd watched, the lift span hung in the air for a moment as officials from Groton and silk-hatted Stonington waited on either side. Then he descended, allowing them to meet on deck.

They were greeted by R. L. Saunders, the state’s deputy highway commissioner, who officially handed over the bridge to the cities.

The two halves of Mystic were once again firmly united, for the next century and beyond.

Editor’s note: This story was taken from many sources, including the State Department of Transportation, the University of Connecticut, the records of Groton Town historian Jim Streeter, and the archives of The Day and the Westerly Sun.

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