Shelburne, New Hampshire - Old Meadows Bridge


Old Meadows Bridge 1/1/03

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The Old Meadows Bridge in Shelburne has a chance for a new life as the centerpiece of a recreation area showcasing the natural and social history of the Androscoggin valley.

The bridge when it was built in 1897 served a similar function. For the first time guests of the Philbrook Farm Inn and other hostelries north of the river could be transported from the railroad station without fording the river and the locals could reliably attend church and grange. The bridge built by the Groton Bridge Co. of Groton, NY was the state of the art - a pin connected Pratt truss bridge - the second longest in the state at the time. It was upgraded with decorative grillwork reflecting local pride in the community.

Although by-passed in 1984, Meadows Bridge still reflects the height of late 19th century bridge design in a commanding setting among the mountains changed mainly by the reforestation of old fields. The threaded bolts, or pins, that connect the various members allow the trusses to flex somewhat. The forces of tension and compression are in balance allowing the very lightly built bridge to support the weight of horse drawn traffic. This bridge has been deemed one of the two most historically significant bridges in New Hampshire based on its age, construction and setting. It is the state's only remaining multi-span, pin-connected truss bridge and one of only a couple dozen nationwide - most in the west and south. There is considerable interest at local, state and national levels in preserving it.

The force that nearly defeated the bridge has been the change of river flow. Over the 106 year lifetime of the bridge so far, the river channel has moved toward the north bank, narrowed and deepened. It has now underscoured the pier that is in mid-stream to the point that there are several feet of water under the steel and concrete. Only the wooden pilings around which the pier was built are supporting it and two of them are missing.

To rescue the bridge before winter, NHDOT will remove the endangered pier and the two trusses connected to it. Meanwhile a committee representing a consortium of groups: the Androscoggin Valley Watershed Council, Congressman Charles Bass's office, NH Division of Historic Resources, North Country Council and the Town of Shelburne are working to find funding for rehabilitation and future maintenance of the bridge, and to develop a plan for use of the area. The Androscoggin River, once renowned for its pollution, is seeing a renaissance of interest in its historic and recreational potential. The Meadows Bridge could be the downstream anchor of a this interest reaching in NH from Errol to Shelburne.

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(BRIDGE NO. 122/110)

James L. Garvin
State Architectural Historian,
Division of Historical Resources,
State of New Hampshire,
Department of Cultural Resources

November 17, 2002;
June 2, 2003

Until the mid-1800s, all crossings of the Androscoggin River in the township of Shelburne were made by fording at low water, by passing over the ice in wintertime, or by rope-drawn ferry.  In 1851, according to a town history of 1969, Enoch Hubbard constructed the first bridge across the river above the river’s confluence with Lead Mine Brook, some three miles upstream from Bridge No. 122/110.[1]  The first bridge soon failed and was replaced.  A total of some seven bridges have crossed the Androscoggin in this vicinity, upstream from the main village of Shelburne and from Bridge No. 122/110. 

Prior to construction of the first bridges, a law of 1832 had authorized a private company, the Shelburne & Androscoggin Bridge Corporation, to “build a bridge over the Androscoggin in Shelburne . . . at any convenient place between the Farm of George Green on the south side of said River and the Farm of Jonas Green on the north side of said River, or at any other convenient place within three miles next above,” and to charge tolls for passage across this bridge.[2]  There is no indication that the corporation ever exercised its right to construct a toll bridge, and the charter became void after five years.

The present bridge at “the ford,” so-called, was the first span at this location.  It was built in 1897 by the Groton Bridge Company of Groton, New York.  Representative Wesley W. Wheeler of Shelburne introduced a joint resolution in the House of Representatives in

its session of January, 1897, proposing that the State of New Hampshire appropriate $6,000, to be matched by $4,000 from the Town of Shelburne, to construct the new bridge.  The resolution was referred to the Committee on Roads, Bridges, and Canals, who eventually recommended approval of the resolution on condition that the state appropriation be reduced from $6,000 to $2,500.  The Senate concurred, and the resolution passed in March 1897.[3]  The state eventually paid its share of the cost of building the bridge from its fund for building roads in the White Mountains, a region in which the legislature regularly made appropriations to overcome the inability of the sparse local population to fund improvements in transportation.[4]

   Map of Shelburne 1897

Because the legislature reduced the state appropriation from a requested $6,000 to $2,500, the Town of Shelburne was left with a funding shortfall of $3,500.  Local citizens proceeded to raise funds privately to augment the town’s appropriation of $4,000 and the state’s $2,500.  By the time the local bridge committee rendered its report in 1898, local subscriptions to the bridge fund totaled $3,564.80.[5]

The Groton Bridge Company built the structure for a contract price of $10,000.  Additional costs included $40 for extra grading, $20 for Portland cement, and $4.80 for freight.  Total cost of the project was $10,064.80.[6]  The town took charge of the contract for construction.

In 1981, the New Hampshire Department of Public Works and Highways commissioned a report on the Meadow Bridge.  Written by Roger A. Brevoort of Archaeological Research Services at the University of New Hampshire, the report details some of the efforts by local people to raise the privately contributed $3,500.  Mr. Brevoort noted:

The bridge is closely associated with Shelburne’s late nineteenth century history.  In conjunction with northern New Hampshire’s burgeoning tourist industry, Shelburne was becoming increasingly popular with vacationers.  The bridge was officially dedicated at an opening ceremony held on October 23, 1897.  Drawing a big crowd of local residents and tourists alike, the day was heralded in the local paper “as the most eventful day of any growing summer resort.” (The Mountaineer, November 10, 1897) 

By the 1890’s the [Shelburne] tourist business supported four inns, two of which were located on the north side of the Androscoggin River.  At least one of these inns, the Philbrook Farm, is still operating.  Visitors enroute to the inns arrived only after fording the river in carriages sent by each hotel at a crossing known as “the ford.”  Subsequent construction of the Meadow Bridge at that same site enhanced the accessibility of the resorts on the northern side of the river, and thus played a role in their continued success.  Certainly the bridge’s location on a major tourist thoroughfare would have established it as a unique local attraction, allowing the town to benefit from its aesthetic appeal.  Historically, the proprietor of the Philbrook Farm Inn was Augustus Philbrook, a prominent local citizen active in the town government and a driving force behind the building of the Meadow Bridge.  As the time, he was one of the Town Selectmen and later served as the town’s construction supervisor for the project, working on a volunteer basis. 

The varied sources of the funds for the bridge deserve note.  Of the $10,000 contract price, $4,000 was put forward by the Town of Shelburne.  Another $2,500 was procured from the State of New Hampshire, a fact significant in its own accord.  The state funds were due to the efforts of Shelburne’s state representative, Hon. Wesley Wheeler, who was instrumental in securing the state’s appropriation.  The remaining $3,500 was raised through local conscription (sic), largely from the efforts of a summer resident from New York, a Mr. Aston, who masterminded the collection of numerous small contributions.  Donations came from both local residents and summer visitors, which strengthens the relationship between the bridge and the tourist business. 

In the context of its remarkably scenic northern New Hampshire location, the Meadow Bridge exhibits an extraordinary visual compatibility with its panoramic mountain environs.  The only major man-made structure within the valley, the bridge plays a sculptural role within the surrounding landscape, contributing to the area’s intense visual excitement and overall historic integrity.[7]

The town history quotes a report of the dedication of the bridge on October 23, 1897, which appeared in the Mountaineer newspaper, published in Gorham, New Hampshire, on November 10:

The day itself was perfect and the charm of the autumnal scenery enchanting. All nature smiled upon the scene as the largest number of people ever assembled in the history of the town gathered to participate in the opening of the new bridge.

Some 600 persons coming by team, on the train, and on bicycles took part in the ceremonies.  The procession formed on the common near the Winthrop House, under the direction of Col. Martin L. Burbank, who acted as marshal.  Col. Burbank is now 71 years of age and the oldest male resident, but is still vigorous and handled the procession in an efficient manner.  Headed by the Gorham brass band, over one hundred teams followed in line to the bridge where the exercises were held.

All in all, it is an elegant bridge, and one of the best spanning the Androscoggin River.  Three handsome American flags, gracefully draped over the iron braces, added beauty and attractiveness as the long procession passed over the bridge, and, countermarching, recrossed to the village side, where after music by the band, the assembly was called to order by James Simpson, who gracefully acted as master of ceremonies.  Prayer was offered by Rev. Edward P. Green, and the Hon. William Kronberg Aston was introduced as orator of the day.

Mr. Aston paid tribute to the generosity of the citizens in devoting time and money to the project, especially praising Miss Whitney for her contribution.  He commended the committee, the engineer, the town’s state representative, [Wesley W. Wheeler,] and Mr. A. E. Philbrook, who contributed generously in both money and time, watching every detail of the construction.  After other words of praise, Mr. Aston concluded, “May the gods protect the structure and allow it to stand throughout the ages at this ideal site.”

Other speakers followed and the Rev. E. P. Green closed with remarks on the bond of union in the town which the bridge would furnish.  Finally, Brainerd C. Burbank, with a four-in-hand and a party of townspeople, then forded and re-forded the river, showing the old method of crossing, now happily, forever a thing of the past, to be recalled only in memory.[8]

The new bridge at “the ford,” later referred to as the “Depot” or “Meadow” Bridge, consisted of three high Pratt truss spans of about 130 feet each, one low or “pony” Pratt truss span of 71 feet, and one short approach stringer span of 21’-3.”  Its total length from abutment to abutment is 504’-2.”  The bridge stands on piers composed of four-foot-diameter steel cylinders with steel plate connecting walls, filled with concrete.  In the aggregate, the structure is one of the longest pin-connected iron bridges ever built in New Hampshire.

Bridge layout

The Pratt truss was designed and patented in 1844 as a combination wood and iron bridge.  The truss design did not become widely popular until wrought iron began to be used in the 1880s to replace wooden or partly-wooden trusses.  By the 1890s, steel was beginning to replace wrought iron as a bridge material, and the Pratt truss quickly achieved dominance in bridge design.

In the early years of the twentieth century, steel Pratt truss bridges outnumbered every other truss design used in the United States.  Pratt truss bridges may, in fact, have outnumbered all bridges built with all other truss designs, combined.  Today, because of continual replacement, pre-1900 Pratt highway truss bridges have become rare.

The joints of the Meadow Bridge are connected with metal “pins”—large, threaded bolts—rather than by riveted gusset plates.  Pin-connected iron or steel bridges were common in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but only a few remain in New Hampshire.

The use of pinned connections for bridge building reflects developments in structural engineering in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  Prior to the mid-1800s, bridge builders designed their spans largely by intuition, developed from long experience.   The efforts of a few scientific engineers gradually made it possible to calculate the precise stresses in each part of a bridge truss.  The ability to analyze the stresses in each member and each joint permitted a bridge to be designed to bear a specific load—its “design loading”—and for each component of the truss to be proportioned to bear the stresses created by that loading.

When engineers design truss bridges, they simplify their initial calculations by assuming that every joint in the truss will be connected by a pin, and that the connections of each member can move slightly to keep the component aligned with the compressive or tensile forces imposed upon it by the weight of the bridge and the weight of traffic.  In metal bridges with riveted connections, the rigid joints compromise this ideal design.  Bridge members develop secondary stresses, especially bending stresses.  But in pin-connected trusses, the finished bridge actually reflects the ideal design and performs accordingly.

Thus, the now-rare pin-connected truss may be said to represent the purest and least compromised form of bridge design.  Because the finished bridge functioned exactly as intended in the original design, the pin-connected truss allowed accurate engineering calculations to be utilized in designing the bridge without the need for highly complex mathematics.

Bridges of the late 1800s and early 1900s were often designed to bear the weight of the standard twenty-ton steam road roller, a slow-moving machine that weighed more than any other vehicle that was likely to pass over a bridge in that era.  Because pin-connected bridges were designed for the relatively light highway loads and low speeds associated with horse-drawn traffic, and because the components of these bridges were precisely proportioned for their design loading, pin-connected spans are among the lightest and most delicate of all bridges.  These structures have an almost web-like quality that makes them among the most aesthetically attractive of metal spans.   The logic and simplicity of their design make them especially appealing to engineers and historians of engineering.

As noted above, the Meadow Bridge was constructed by the Groton Bridge Company of Groton, New York.  Founded in 1877 as the Groton Iron Bridge Company, the firm changed its name to the Groton Bridge and Manufacturing Company in 1887.  The company manufactured punches and straightening machinery used in bridge fabrication, as well as woodworking machinery.  Groton Bridge and Manufacturing Company maintained an eastern district office in Fitchburg, Massachusetts.  This presence in eastern New England permitted the company to compete in that region with the Berlin Iron Bridge Company of Connecticut, which dominated bridge fabrication and sales in New England during the late 1800s.[9]   The company was acquired by American Bridge Company in 1900 when American Bridge was striving to obtain a near monopoly on bridge fabrication in the eastern United States.  American Bridge sold the firm to former owners in 1901.  The purchasers renamed the company “Groton Bridge Company.”

In addition to the Shelburne bridge, three surviving New Hampshire spans are known to have been erected by the Groton Bridge and Manufacturing Company or the later Groton Bridge Company.  They are the Pingree Bridge in West Salisbury (1893), a pin-connected low Pratt truss; the Cavender Road Bridge over the Contoocook River, between Greenfield and Hancock (1906), also a pin-connected low Pratt truss; and the Patterson Hill Road Bridge in West Henniker (1915), a riveted high Pratt truss designed by engineer John Storrs of Concord.

The Town of Shelburne was apparently satisfied with the performance of the Groton Bridge and Manufacturing Company. The year before contracting for the multi-span bridge over the Androscoggin, the town had paid $535 to the same firm for a new bridge over Clement Brook.  This was described as “a three-panel, pony truss, about 37˝ feet long, with a plank floor, and a sixteen foot roadway.”[10]  The Clement Brook Bridge was replaced by a concrete slab in 1929.[11]  In 1898, the town again paid Groton Bridge and Manufacturing Company $350 for a new bridge over Burbank or Mill Brook.  It was described as “a three panel, pony, Warren [truss], about 42 feet long.”[12]   This bridge was replaced by a concrete rigid frame in 1962.[13]

According to the 1969 town history, the location of the multi-span Meadow Bridge became a matter of some local discussion.  Originally, “Gates Crossing,” upstream of the present bridge and south of the home of Miss S. A. Gates on North Road, had been suggested.  Miss A. Whitney, who lived across the road from Miss Gates, reportedly felt that the proposed bridge location would be too close to her home.  She offered to contribute no less than $1,000 to the building fund if the bridge were placed farther downstream.[14]

The town history also reports that “Silas Morse, who owned the farm on the south side [of the Androscoggin] refused to allow the workmen to pile the girders on the [river] bank, claiming ownership of the land to mid-river.  This brought things to a standstill until Augustus Philbrook recalled having heard the previous owner comment that whereas adjacent property lines went to the middle of the river, his stopped at the bank.  The deeds verified this, and since the bank was defined at high water, the area where the men were to work was not under Mr. Morse’s control and the building could proceed.”[15] 

Despite this reported settlement, Silas P. Morse did derive some financial benefit from the bridge project.  The town report of 1898 shows that the town paid Morse $200 for land damages.[16]  Morse owned land adjacent both to the river and the railroad depot, and undoubtedly the layout of the road to the new bridge, and perhaps the need for additional staging areas, affected Morse’s property.

The Meadow Bridge is the most remarkable of the pin-connected Pratt truss spans that survive in the state.  The Meadow Bridge combines three identical high Pratt trusses, and one low Pratt truss.  Beyond Shelburne, only two single-span high pin-connected Pratt truss bridges survive in New Hampshire.  The first, the Stratford-Maidstone Bridge over the upper Connecticut River, was built by the Berlin Iron Bridge Company in 1893.  Long closed to traffic, this bridge will soon be rehabilitated for vehicular traffic by the states of New Hampshire and Vermont. 

The other high pin-connected Pratt truss bridge is the Thompson’s Crossing Bridge over the Contoocook River, between Antrim and Bennington, New Hampshire.  It, too, was built by the Berlin Iron Bridge Company in 1893.  It was abandoned in 1976 and today is derelict, with no flooring.

Similarly, there are two New Hampshire short-span bridges that are comparable to the low Pratt truss span at the southern end of the Meadow Bridge. As mentioned above (page 6), both were built by the Groton Bridge Company.  These are the Pingree Bridge, a pin-connected low Pratt truss span built in 1893 over the Blackwater River in West Salisbury, and the Cavender Road Bridge, a similar span built in 1905 over the Contoocook River between Hancock and Greenfield, New Hampshire.

The Meadow Bridge is, therefore, by far the most dramatic and costly of the few surviving pin-connected bridges in New Hampshire.  It is a true engineering landmark, representing the finest of design, materials, and construction by a leading American bridge fabricator of the late 1800s. It is a legacy from Shelburne’s first era of prosperity as a tourist destination and a monument to local determination and commitment.  More than a century ago, when town and state together could not afford to fund the full cost of this much-needed crossing, private citizens and summer visitors combined forces to make up the difference.   The bridge they built stands today as a remarkable document in the history of New Hampshire transportation and engineering.

[1] Merrell, Margaret, ed., Shelburne, New Hampshire: Its First Hundred Years (Berlin, N.H.: Smith & Town Printers, 1969), pp. 42-43.

[2] Laws of New Hampshire, Volume 10, Second Constitutional Period, 1829-1835 (Concord, NH: Evans Printing Company, 1922), pp. 267-369.

[3] Journals of the Honorable Senate and House of Representatives of the State of New Hampshire, January Session, 1897 (Manchester, NH: Arthur E. Clarke, 1987), pp. 255, 258-9, 362, 400, 660, 776, 786, 791.

[4] Report of the State Treasurer of the State of New Hampshire for the Year Ending May 31, 1898 (Manchester, NH: Arthur E. Clarke, 1898), pp. 30-31.  At this period, Shelburne had a total population of  about 283; see New Hampshire State Planning and Development Commission, Population of New Hampshire, Part I, Basic Data on Growth and Distribution Since the Time of Settlement, 1623-1940 (Concord, NH: by the Commission, 1946), pp. 14-15.

[5] Annual Report of the Town Officers of Shelburne, NH for the Fiscal Year Ending February 15, 1898 (Gorham, NH: Mountaineer Job Print, 1898), p. 11.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Architectural/Historical Evaluation of Meadow Bridge, Shelburne, New Hampshire,” submitted  by the New Hampshire Department of Public Works and Highways.  Prepared by Roger A. Brevoort, Preservation Planning Consultant, for Archaeological Research Services, University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire, February 1981,” pp. 5-6.

[8] Shelburne, New Hampshire: Its First Hundred Years (Berlin, NH: Smith & Town Printers, 1969), pp. 44-45.

[9] Victor Darnell, Directory of American Bridge Building Companies, 1840-1900 (Washington, D.C.: Society for Industrial Archaeology, 1985).

[10] Letter, John W. Storrs to R. T. Hodge of the Groton Bridge Company, May 25, 1914.

[11] Financial Report of the Town Officers of Shelburne, NH for the Fiscal Year Ending February 15, 1897 (Gorham, NH: Mountaineer Job Print, 1897), pp. 2, 8.

[12] Letter, John W. Storrs to R. T. Hodge of the Groton Bridge Company, May 25, 1914.  The Burbank or Mill Brook Bridge is pictured in Shelburne, New Hampshire: Its First Hundred Years (Berlin, NH: Smith & Town Printers, 1969), p. 42.

[13] Annual Report of the Town Officers of Shelburne, NH for the Fiscal Year Ending February 15, 1899 (Gorham, NH: Weston Printer, 1899), pp. 3, 8.  The Burbank or Mill Brook Bridge was a low Warren truss.  It is pictured in Shelburne, New Hampshire: Its First Hundred Years (Berlin, NH: Smith & Town Printers, 1969), p. 42.

[14] Shelburne, New Hampshire: Its First Hundred Years, p. 43.

[15] Ibid., p. 44

[16] Annual Report of the Town Officers of Shelburne, NH for the Fiscal Year Ending February 15, 1898 (Gorham, NH: Mountaineer Job Print, 1898), p. 2.

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Opening Day October 27, 1897
Opening Ceremony 1897
South end looking North

North End Detail 1977Looking South to North 1977

Looking South to North 1977
1977 - 7 years before retirement

Support Failing 2003
Support failing into the water
Photo courtesy of Androscoggin River Watershed Council

Base Failure 2003
Close-up of support eaten away by erosion and corrosion

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The Old Stone Wall adobe gif
Newsletter of Division of Historical Resources,
State of New Hampshire, Department of Cultural Resources

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February 2004

Meadows Bridge Press Release

Beginning on Wednesday, February 18th, Disassembly 2004a specialized contracting firm will use a massive crane to lift two endangered spans of Meadows Bridge in Shelburne, New Hampshire, off their supports and place them temporarily on the banks of the Androscoggin River for safekeeping. One of the four piers that support the structure is being undermined by riverbed scour, causing two of the four trusses to lean and twist, and potentially endangering both the historic structure and a 1984 bypass bridge just downstream.

Following strong expressions of public sentiment for preserving the bridge, the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (DOT) developed plans to prevent the loss of the two endangered trusses. In November 2003, DOT awarded a contract to Chesterfield Associates of New York to remove the two sections for storage on the shores of the river until detailed plans can be developed for rehabilitating the bridge. One truss will be placed on temporary nests of pilings on the southwest side of the river to keep the structure above high water, with the other truss being moved to a parking area on the opposite side of the river.

Disassembly 2004Meadows Bridge is a rare, four-span metal truss bridge that was built over the Androscoggin in 1897. Unlike most steel bridges built after the turn of the twentieth century, Meadows Bridge is "pin-connected," having the ends of its intersecting truss members connected by massive bolts rather than by rivets.

With a total length of 504 feet, Meadows Bridge is one of the longest pin-connected bridges ever built in New Hampshire. Most of its contemporaries have been replaced over time, giving Meadows Bridge the status of the most monumental surviving multi-span structure of its type in the state, and one of only a few dozen to survive nationwide. When New Hampshire's steel and concrete bridges were evaluated for engineering significance in the 1980s, Meadows Bridge earned one of the two highest scores, equaled only by Memorial Bridge over the Piscataqua River in Portsmouth.

In December 2003, Meadows Bridge was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The bridge has been recognized for its significance at the national, state, and local levels in both transportation and engineering.

Disassembly 2004The ultimate cost of full rehabilitation of the bridge is estimated at $1.6 million. In return for its commitment to spend funds to preserve Meadows Bridge, DOT has applied a policy that requires the contribution from others of 20% of the cost of rehabilitation, or $320,000. This is a daunting prospect for a town of 379 people. Therefore, the Shelburne has formed a committee to raise funds via grants or other sources. Since DOT's policy also requires the town to assume ownership and future care of the bridge after its rehabilitation, the committee is working to be certain that funding is available for maintenance so that the bridge does not become a long term drain on town funds.

In July 2003, a planning committee was formed after two public meetings were held in Shelburne. Chaired by Ray Danforth of Shelburne, the committee is working to meet DOT's challenge of raising 20% of the cost of permanently rehabilitating the bridge.Disassembly 2004

In November 2003, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation awarded the committee $5,000 to develop plans to save the bridge and provide public benefit from the preserved structure. The committee contracted with the North Country Council, the regional planning commission that serves fifty-one northern New Hampshire communities, to draft the plan.

Disassembly 2004North Country Council staff members are developing narrative and graphic components of the plan. There will be an Informational meeting to present this plan to the public Tues, Feb. 17 at 7pm at the Shelburne Town Hall. Following public comment, the plan will be revised and used as a vehicle for raising the 20% non-DOT share of preservation costs and for developing recreational and educational facilities around the preserved structure and its site.

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