The first bridge to span the Connecticut River as it flows southwards into Massachusetts from the Vermont/New Hampshire border is this beautiful, unique, and highly significant structure. The construction of the Schell Bridge (or the proper full name the Schell Memorial Bridge) was started in 1901 and completed in 1903, and served traffic until structural deterioration forced its closing in 1985. Since then its future has been uncertain, with the state of Massachusetts trying more then once to demolish the bridge (with a lack of funding usually being a saving grace). Demolition is again planned for this bridge, with its removal and replacement with a pedestrian bridge a stated goal for the state by the end of the decade.
The history of the bridge is almost as fascinating as its design and structural details, so we will start on that front. The Schell Bridge is the first bridge at its location, replacing a wooden covered combination railroad/highway bridge downstream. The old bridge (located where the current NECR Connecticut River bridge is - ID# bh56313) was unpopular with residents, who had to deal with soot, noise, and spooked horses from overhead trains on the combination bridge (as well as rent fees). The town moved to build its own independent highway bridge when the old wooden bridge was condemned, but disputes over funding arose, with the town not wanting to have to expend more then it would cost to continue to share a bridge with the railroad.
The solution was a wealthy summer resident named Francis Schell, who had become interested in Northfield due to the Evangelical work of a town resident named Dwight Moody, who maintained a Seminary in the town and held religious conferences throughout the summer. The two became good friends, and Schell maintained his relationship with the school and town even after Moodys death in 1899. The new bridge would have several benefits for the school as well as the summer conferences (as it would give easier access to a nearby rail depot). Schell generously offered to pay the entire sum for the bridge (initially $32,000), granted that the bridge would be named in memorial of his recently deceased father.
The original design called for a simple 3 span system crossing the river, however with the bridges new benefactor wanting it to be a worthy memorial bridge he added an additional $6000 to ensure that no details were omitted from this bridge. The new design called for a single arched span, utilizing a cantilever system deigned by Edward Shaw. Several ornate details were added at this time, giving the bridge its elegant and unique Gothic themes. The mechanics of the design are quite unique and deserve further discussion.
The system functions as a cantilever while at a dead load, with it acting as a single span between the piers, with the two outward spans cantilevered out from this span. Thus, with no live load no weight is applied to the abutments; the piers carry the entire load. When a live load is applied to the system however the span acts as a continuous truss across the abutments and piers. Evidence of this system can be found at the abutments, with large springs being located at the abutments, which are in place to counteract the upward force of the cantilever arms when the center span is under load.
Certainly this bridge has a incredible amount of local history associated with it, making that alone worthy for preservation. Add also its unique and elegant design, say nothing about its striking beauty. We should also consider its practical nature, as with the large span between the piers the bridge has little exposure to river flow, which undoubtedly helped it survive the great flood of 1936 that damaged or destroyed most of the bridges along the Connecticut river. A continued maintenance and preservation of this generous and beautiful gift from Francis Schell would be a worthy testament, instead of the proposed demolition simply for the sake of expediency.