History Copied in full from: https://theberkshireedge.com/alan-chartock-i-publius-63
The colorful history of the Great Scarlet Bridge New abutment stone was quarried locally. The builder began to put truss members in place that September, competing installation in October. Teams immediately began to cross it. The total cost came to $10,286.23. That’s $188,620.48 in today’s spending. It appeared to be a job well done. Then the wobbles began.
BY BERNARD A. DREW POSTED ON DECEMBER 19, 2020 Great Barrington
The Brown (since 1984) Bridge— now turned scarlet or “primer red” — was before that the Green Bridge and before that … Well, there’s quite a story about bridges at this location.
Historically, this Housatonic River crossing, originally a Native American fordway, has most often been called the Great Bridge. Not because it was the longest span in town — three others downstream cross equal or greater widths. No, there’s a simple reason it’s the Great Bridge. Economy of verbiage. The Pittsfield Sun for Sept. 25, 1834, refers to the “Great Barrington Bridge.” That’s a mouthful for conversation, easily rendered “Great Bridge.”
The crossing in the 18th century was used by Native Americans, by fur traders, by early Dutch and English settlers, by whites and Mohicans and free and enslaved Blacks; by Gen. Jeffery Amherst’s British and Scots troops in 1758 during the French & Indian Wars; by Patriots heading west to fight during the American Revolution; by logging trucks heading to Canada, tourists rushing to Stockbridge, farmers aiming for Agway, skiers traveling to Butternut.
Town historian Charles J. Taylor (1824-1904) researched wooden bridges at the crossing. The first record he found was in a town document from 1737, when funds were voted for repair. (Ashley Falls historian Gelston Hardy in 1965 disputed this, saying that reference was to a bridge in Sheffield, of which Great Barrington at the time was the northern precinct. The Great Barrington location, Hardy estimated, was first bridged in 1745.)
At any rate, Taylor wrote that the history of the Great Bridge and its successors over the next 130 years was of constant replacement or overhaul. New bridges were put up in 1745, 1755, 1761, 1767 and 1774.
“In 1785, ’86 and ’87 the bridge underwent extensive repairs,” Taylor wrote, “fully equal to rebuilding.”
In 1778 the stone pier in the center of the river was probably built. Further repairs were made in 1796 and ’99 and in 1802. A committee of the town was allowed $210 for repairs then recently made. Since that time the bridge has been several times rebuilt, and oftener repaired; the present bridge [at the time of Taylor’s writing in 1868] having been built in 1848, and its immediate predecessor in 1831.
Taylor served on a town committee that was well aware of the bridge’s constant shortcomings and optimistic a more reliable bridge was possible using iron, rather than wood. The committee examined designs for Hawkins, Herthel & Burrall’s Iron Bridge, King’s Patent Tubular Arch Iron Bridge and Lucius E. Truesdell’s 1859 Patent Truss Iron Bridge. Committee members traveled to Springfield, Indian Orchard and Pittsfield to view examples of these bridges already in use.
The bridge panel, according to Taylor’s account, voted in July to go with the Truesdell, installation to be done by A.D. Briggs of Springfield. Briggs had been in the bridge business for two years. “Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Taylor went with Mr. Briggs to Northampton,” Taylor wrote, “examined two of his bridges there and finally agreed with Mr. Briggs to put up the Truesdell bridge … The bridge is to be 93 feet in length, 89 feet between abutments, the chord on which the floor timbers are to be of half-inch iron 4 inches wide. The bridge is to be erected by the first of September. The price is to be $4,100.” That’s roughly $75,000 in 2020 dollars.
The Truesdell bridge design. New abutment stone was quarried locally. The builder began to put truss members in place that September, competing installation in October. Teams immediately began to cross it. The total cost came to $10,286.23. That’s $188,620.48 in today’s spending. It appeared to be a job well done.
Then the wobbles began.
The designer and the builder had not taken into account the stresses and pressures on a truss. The Truesdell quickly went out of vogue following a major railroad accident elsewhere. But Great Barrington was stuck with this innovative bridge.
A certain amount of jiggle is good, covered bridge historian Richard S. “Rick” Allen told me. Floor boards were never spiked firmly in place; wiggle room meant less stress and longer life. The same holds somewhat true for metal spans. Slight give is acceptable, reduces wear.
“When the bridge was erected,” The Berkshire Courier said in May 1884, “it was thought to be on a first-class theory and a lasting bridge, but a few years’ wear on the same kind of bridge on a railroad out West, which fell with a train on it, causing great loss of life, soon convinced the builder that it was not a good one.”
Townspeople at a special town meeting that month — Taylor moderated the meeting — heard testimony from Selectman T.Z Potter, who said a trotting team passing over the bridge caused it to vibrate as much as 8 inches. J.D. Noxon, though, said the bridge was put up by competent men and in his opinion was safe and would not fall. The problem, he said, was fast driving. Jared Lewis said he was “in an uncertain state of mind about the matter” and he wanted more information. But, he added, he didn’t want any more iron bridges like this one, as frightened horses were likely to go through the large openings on the sides.
Voters agreed in a 23-13 vote to replace the metal bridge with another, a Corrugated Metal Co. span using the William O. Douglas patent of 1878. That design, with a distinctive “pumpkinseed” truss shape, lasted as a Great Bridge until 1931.
The Berlin, Conn., firm built more metal truss highway bridges in the Berkshires than any other firm. Housatonic River bridges at Cottage and Bridge streets and Brush Hill Road were soon of this type. Smaller such parabolic spans went up on Maple Avenue and Pumpkin Hollow Road and in Seekonk.
“The few survivors are the visible record of this country’s progress in manufacturing techniques and the growth of the iron industry,” according to retired Berlin Construction Co. engineer Victor C. Darnell. “They also record the beginning and the development of analytical design for the civil engineers.”
That bridge lasted nearly 50 years.
Despite the safe passage afforded by the bridge, some individuals insisted on boating across the Housatonic River. Charles Gobetta, for example, “had a narrow escape Sunday afternoon from being drowned in the Housatonic River a short distance north of the great bridge,” The Pittsfield Sun reported May 10, 1906. “Gobetta started out in a boat to cross the river and in some way the frail craft was caught by the current and overturned.” Gobetta was fished out of the water and lived.
This was only three months after Riley Chase of Sheffield had a similar experience near the Van Lennep boat house, southeasterly of the North Plain Road railroad underpass. The Berkshire County Eagle for Feb. 28,1906 reported him recovering at his home. In his case, there’s no mention of a boat or how he came to fall into the river.
Both, of course, would have been better off walking across the bridge.
The so-called ‘Great’ bridge in 1931, with the adjacent bridge for trolley line. – Courtesy Gary Leveille Fred T. Ley of Springfield built a 108-foot replacement span on the site in 1931. As The Boston Globe reported September 3: “Construction of a steel pony-truss bridge span, about 115 feet, with approaches of macadam, the total stretch being 423 feet, in the town of Great Barrington to Fred T. Ley & Co. Inc. of Springfield, $32,058.30, the lowest of 11 bids.”
That’s $549,183.99 in today’s money.
“A bill for the use of a boat during the construction of the Great Bridge was ordered sent to the Fred T. Ley Company of Springfield, contractors,” The Berkshire Eagle reported of a Board of Selectmen’s meeting. The town wasn’t going to pick up any extra expenses.
The bridge was an 8-panel riveted Parker pony truss. At the same time the present bridge was erected, the companion Berkshire Street Railway bridge along it was removed, as that service had ended.
The first auto accident on the bridge was in February 1932, when a vehicle operated by V. Murphy of Brooklyn, N.Y., collided with a truck driven by Louis Pedulla of Agawam.
The Selectmen engaged H.D. Broderick to paint the bridge in 1939 and were so pleased with the results, they suggested decided to use the balance of the fund to paint either the Cottage Street or Bridge Street bridge.
The bridge served as a viewing point during heavy spring runoff in April 1940, but apparently wasn’t threatened by huge cakes of ice floating downstream and crashing over the Southern Berkshire Power & Electric generating station dam just downstream. (The dam was removed in 1963.) The Great Bridge was also higher than the spring river flow in 1955 that wiped out the Bridge Street bridge.
The current work on the bridge is estimated to cost $1.6 million. That’s in 2020 dollars.
Just noodling with numbers, if we add up the costs since 1868 — 152 years — and divide it into the total known spending ($2,412,804), the result is what the cost of amortized annual maintenance has been: $15,874. That sounds reasonable.
This story is adapted from the author’s Spanning Berkshire Waterways (1990) and Great Barrington Here & Gone (nearing completion for the Great Barrington Historical Commission). It relies in part on Taylor papers in the Historical Commission’s archive as well as vintage newspapers. The writer previously in Berkshire Edge essays related the stories of bridges in the Brooklyn section of town and of the Cottage Street Bridge. And he cataloged Housatonic River bridges in Stockbridge.