the Concord MagazineNovember '98

Simple Purpose - Historic Span: The Old North Bridge

By D. Michael Ryan, company Historian with the Concord Minute Men, an 18th Century volunteer historic interpreter with the National Park Service and Associate Dean of Students at Boston College .

bridge and concord fight
Artist's vision of the Concord fight, published 1904.
"By the rude bridge that arched the flood..."

While Emerson never observed the North Bridge of 1775 (he was born after its dismantling), he probably viewed the Doolittle engravings and thus provided an accurate description of the structure and its natural environment.

The bridge which served as a focal point for the 19 April "fight" had already been reconstructed in 1760. Following a selectmen's petition to the General Court, a lottery was held to raise monies for the work. Consisting of five sets of pilings, with railings on both sides, the simple oak bridge had a loose plank surface which could be rearranged by wagon drivers or walkers as necessary. It was these planks which the British soldiers attempted to remove in order to impede the colonials' march during their historic 1775 encounter. Floods, storm damage, decay and even bombings followed by rebuilding would be the bridge's history.

beech leaves By 1791, new travel routes and road realignments would make the undependable (due to flooding) North Bridge expendable and thus Rev. Ripley and neighbors requested the town remove the deteriorating structure. This was accomplished in 1793 leaving only the stone abutments. The access path became part of Ripley's cow pasture.

The dismantled bridge was neither the first nor the last on the site. Prior to the 1635 land grant of Musketaquid to a group of Englishmen, native Americans had used the North Bridge area as a temporary, seasonal campsite for some 5,000 years. The river crossing was probably cleared of vegetation and was a part of the Great Fields. With the locating of settlers on lands north and west of Great River (1630s), a connecting bridge over the water was needed linking the farms and Concord center.While ancient roadbeds (1635-50; abandoned 1750) have been found in the marsh west of the crossing, the first bridge seems to appear around 1654 and in 1659 the town is petitioning the General Court for maintenance aid.

concrete bridge
Cement bridge, published 1911.
Great Bridge linked roads which were essential to the survival and growth of early Concord. Highways assisted the transport of goods, services and information while also having a military purpose. Roads converging at the Bridge were some of Concord's oldest, joining the town to Acton, Groton and the world beyond. Laid out in 1699 (a trail since 1665), the Groton Road ran 200 miles to the British citadel at Crown Point on Lake Champlain, gateway to Quebec.

Land around North Bridge was low and marshy hence requiring a raised, cobblestone causeway to allow access during frequent floods. Such was built in 1750 from the Bridge to Jonathan Buttrick's house. He donated the land upon the town promising to build and maintain a stone wall on the road's north side to protect the farm from travelers. In 1770, one David Brown who lived nearby was paid to care for the causeway and wall. On 19 April, as captain commanding a minute company, he would make the historic march down this causeway, along that wall to the Bridge.

Following the 1793 bridge dismantling, the site would be neglected until 1825. In that year, Ripley would return land to the town for the reopening of an east bank access path and a battle monument. Citizens were most upset that no memorial was placed where the colonials had fallen. It would not be until 1870, with money left by Ebenezer Hubbard, that plans were accomplished for a statue on the west bank and a new bridge. Maj. Buttrick's grandson, Stedman, donated land on the river for this purpose but with the stipulation that no access to the location would cross his properties. In 1875, an ornate cedarwood bridge with two rustic half arbors containing seats, reaching out over the water, was constructed. The simple oak and stone original design had been forsaken.

open beechnut In the Centennial year of the "fight", the first North Bridge in 82 years, along with French's Minute Man Statue, was dedicated. But like its predecessors, storms and floods would cause havoc. The structure would be washed out in 1888 and replaced by a massive oak unit in 1889 which was washed away again in 1908 and replaced in 1909 by a cement work resembling the original. But alas this too would suffer damage at the hands of Hurricane "Diane" in 1955 and be replaced in 1956 by the current bridge. This structure of mill-sawn planking, nuts and bolts framework support, was planned strong enough to handle tourist traffic as well as natural occurrences. Not prepared for was a vandal's dynamiting on 20 June 1969. (NOTE: Some 4 years later on 29 November 1973, a dynamite bomb was found at the base of the Minute Man statue but was dismantled without incident.) With repairs, the "Old" North Bridge survived and became part of Congress's newly ordained Minute Man National Historic Park chartered to maintain and interpret 1775 scenes.

As it has always done, North Bridge continues its role of linking, but instead of roads, now its the past, present and future of a people - their culture, traditions and history. While but a wooden object, the "rude bridge" symbolizes strength of character and resolve in the literal and figurative arching of "the flood" of adversity.

Sources:
  • "The Minutemen and Their World" by Robert A. Gross, 1976.
  • "The Scene of the Battle 1775" Historic Grounds Report, Minute Man
  • National Historic Park, by Joyce L. Malcolm, 1985.
  • "Archeological Exploration for Traces of the Road West of the Great
  • North Bridge in Concord" by Leland Abel, 1965.
  • Concord Archives - Special Collections - "Ancient Records of Concord",
  • Concord Free Public Library.

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    Text: ©D. Michael Ryan
    Drawings of the beech leaves and nuts at the North Bridge and Buttrick Estate in Concord. © 1998 Andrea Menna Taylor.

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