The first bridge built across the Connecticut River, at any point in its length, was the toll bridge at Bellows Falls, built in 1785. The nearest one on the north was Cheshire Bridge two miles above Charlestown, built in 1805, and the nearest one on the south, the one between Walpole and Westminster, was built in 1807.
The present picturesque reinforced cement bridge between the towns of Walpole and Westminster stands in practically the same location as have stood bridges since the erection of the first primitive wooden toll bridge in 1807.
Toll was collected for crossing the river at this point until 1870.
During the day, on Wednesday, March 18, 1868, in the passing of ice down the river, without extremely high water, the half of the bridge on the Vermont side was carried away. After the owners of the bridge had replaced that, the same half fell on October 20, 1869, caused by the undermining of the west abutment. It had been owned by an organization known as the Walpole and Westminster Bridge Corporation. They did not have the money to again repair the structure, and they became anxious to give it up offering to sell it for a small sum.
The town of Walpole, having held a meeting and voted to pay two-thirds of the expense of building a new bridge, and of buying the corporate interest in the old one, Westminster, at its annual town meeting, on March 1, 1870, voted to appropriate the sum of $1,500 and instructed its selectmen to unite with the selectmen of Walpole in buying the interests in the old bridge corporation.
At a special Westminster town meeting held April 23, 1870, it was voted to appropriate an additional sum of $700 to carry out an agreement that had been signed by the selectmen of both towns and had been accepted and ratified at this special meeting, which read as follows:
“Whereas the Walpole and Westminster Bridge Corporation and the stockholders of said corporation have signified their desire to give up said corporate property for a nominal sum in consideration of having a public highway laid and built over said franchise, and certain individuals in Walpole having pledged themselves to pay two thousand dollars, the Cheshire Railroad to furnish one thousand dollars in material and labor, and individuals in Westminster and Rockingham one thousand dollars for the purpose of having and maintaining said public highway, therefore, we, the selectmen of the respective towns aforesaid, agree to the following arrangement, to wit : ` The selectmen of Walpole, New Hampshire, to survey and lay out upon the line of the late bridge belonging to said corporation to a public highway to the west line of New Hampshire; and the selectmen of Westminster, Vermont, to survey and lay out a public highway to the line of said bridge to the east line of Vermont; and further in behalf of said towns do hereby agree to build and maintain a public highway or free bridge over said route in the proportion of two-thirds of the expense to be borne by the said town of Walpole and one-third by the said town of Westminster, said agreement to be in force and virtue, until either of said towns shall vote to discontinue said highway, and they further agree that the necessary measures shall be taken by said towns to secure acts or laws by the legislature of their respective states, legalizing this agreement (if not so now) and making such laws as shall be necessary to regulate the care and maintenance of said bridge, hereafter, as a public highway in the foregoing proportions.’
“Given under our hands at Walpole and Westminster this 23rd day of April, A. D. 1870. Charles Fisher, Frederick Watkins, Nehemiah Royce, selectmen of Walpole; Henry C. Lane, D. C. Gorham, Nathan Fisher, selectmen of Westminster.”
At a special Westminster town meeting on June 20, following, called for the purpose of appropriating a further sum for the above purpose, the town voted to instruct its selectmen to do nothing further about the matter, and refused to appropriate any more money toward building the bridge. This action caused considerable feeling, culminating in the calling of the third town meeting held on July 8 following, which resulted in rescinding the action taken at the former meeting, and the selectmen were authorized and instructed to carry out the provisions of the above agreement and draw their orders on the treasury for a sufficient sum for the same. The bridge was built, a frame truss structure, and opened for travel in the fall of 1870 with a grand celebration.
This, the third bridge to span the river at this point, was in use until its destruction by fire April 10, 1910. On this date, at about 8:30 P. M., the bridge was destroyed by fire. An incendiary was later arrested, tried and sentenced to the New Hampshire state prison, the evidence against him being conclusive.
The next year, the present cement structure was built, becoming an ornament, and credit, to the enterprise of the two towns. Walpole paid two-thirds of the expense, and Westminster one-third, the same as the division in cost of the former bridge.
The Toll Bridge Between Windsor And Cornish
The old frame toll bridge, in use crossing the Connecticut River between Windsor, Vermont, and Cornish, New Hampshire, is one of the few remaining bridges over the Connecticut between the two states where tolls are still charged. The present structure was built in 1866, replacing one of a similar pattern that was carried away by flood during the night of March 3rd of that year. It is the third bridge over the river at that point.
The first bridge was built in 1796, at a cost of $17,099.27, an unusually large sum for bridges of that class at that time. Among the stockholders, most prominent were several members of the influential Chase family of Cornish, and many citizens of Windsor, Hartland and other Connecticut River towns. The second bridge was built in 1824, replacing the first, which had been carried away by a freshet in the spring of that year. This, in turn, was lost by a flood in 1849. Up to that time, each bridge had been supported by three piers between the abutments, while in the erection of that year’s structure, only one pier was used, the same as now. Thus, with the exception of the times when carried away by freshets, toll has been continuously charged for passing the bridges for over 130 years. Not unreasonable rates have ever been charged, and there has never been strong talk of asking the two states to free the bridge. It has well served the public.
Examination of the interesting records of the different bridges excites wonder at the changes that have come into practices and into modes of living in the different eras of the 130 years. One prominent fact comes to mind in the knowledge of the large number of cattle and sheep that passed the Windsor-Cornish Bridge in early years, on their way to the Boston Market. They were driven on foot, and not transported as now. The high peak of the patronage of the bridge, for this class, seems to have been reached between 1824 and 1850, when the railroad was built through the valley. On October 24th, 1825, 838 sheep and 259 cattle passed over the bridge. On November 7th of that year, the count was 920 sheep and 236 cattle. The record for that year shows a total of about 9,500 sheep and 2,600 cattle. In 1838, 14,084 sheep and 2,208 cattle were recorded.
The toll gatherer from 1825 to 1838, one “Col. Brown,” was very faithful in recording many events of interest. On Tuesday, June 28th, 1825, “Marquis Fayette passed with his Suit”; On September 14, 1826, there was a “Muster at Cornish”; On September 14, 1831, there was a “Wolf Hunt”; On September 14, 1831, he recorded an evidently unusual amount of crossing the bridge because of a ” Calvinistic Convention” held somewhere. Various passings of boats and rafts up and down the river, are mentioned, and on February 16, 1825, there was a ” Convention for Navigating the Valley of the Connecticut River.’
What an interesting amount of historical lore could be rehearsed by the different keepers of this, and other, Connecticut River bridges!
First Connecticut River Bridges At Brattleboro, Charlestown, White River Junction And Hanover
The first bridge across the Connecticut River between Brattleboro, Vermont, and Hinsdale, New Hampshire, was erected in November 1804. The description of it, as well as of an accident that occurred there soon after, and its fall the next year, is recorded in the Political Observer, a newspaper printed in Walpole, New Hampshire, at that time.
Under a date line of Brattleboro, December 1, 1804, that paper says
” On Tuesday last, the new toll bridge over the Connecticut River, which connects Brattleboro with Hinsdale in New Hampshire, was opened for passengers. The bridge does the highest honor to Mr. Kingsley, the architect, as well as to Mr. Lovel Kelton and the mechanics who executed the work under their direction.
“It has been pronounced to have been erected upon the best plan of any yet put into execution in this part of the Union, combining greater strength with less weight of material and promising more durability.
“From the Vermont side, a stone abutment projects from the bank 34 feet wide, 50 feet in length, and 34 feet in height, from which is thrown the western arch 124 feet in the arc, and resting its eastern end on a stone pier in the channel from which is extended an eastern arch of the same dimensions, meeting a similar abutment on Barrit’s Island. Upon the eastern side of the island, another bridge 260 feet long with stone abutments and resting on trussels extends the passage to New Hampshire.
” The public is congratulated upon the completion of these useful edifices. Perhaps there are few bridges in the interior that will be so extensively beneficial.
The bridge is connected in the act of incorporation of a turnpike road through Hinsdale, Winchester and Warwick, where it unites with the Massachusetts Turnpike, so that the invalid seeking health, or the healthy seeking pleasure, may now be transported in a wheeled carriage from Boston to Bennington, and so on, to Albany and Ballstown Springs entirely upon a turnpike road without the least interruption of even the smallest ferriage, reducing the distance from Boston to Ballstown Springs to 170 miles.”
Under its general news head the same paper says, under date of December 15, 1804:
” On Thursday, the 8th ultimo, Isaac Grant, one of the workmen completing the flooring of the new bridge connecting Brattleboro and Hinsdale, fell backwards from the center of the western arch into the river. He fell about 30 feet into about 25 feet of water. He could not swim, but on rising to the surface, he was told not to struggle against the current which being swift carried him some rods below the bridge where he was saved by the exertions of two men who came to his assistance. He was so exhausted, that it was some hours before he was restored to his senses.
” The humane activity and determined presence of mind of those who saved the life of this valuable citizen, had they lived within the notice of a humane society, would doubtless have been honored with a medal. It is only in our power to notice their merit by inserting the names of Jacob Locke of Walpole and Lewis Brewer.”
The same paper says on February 16, 1805:
“We learn that on Thursday last, the new bridge lately erected across the Connecticut River between Brattleboro and Hinsdale fell, and was crushed to ruins. The cause is said to have been the great weight of snow lodged on it. The private loss must be heavy, and the public inconvenience not small.”
Regarding bridges over the river farther north, the “Political Observer” has the following on other dates:
“October 10, 1806. The bridge between Charlestown and Springfield is completed, which will facilitate travel from this town (Walpole) to Windsor.”
“March 24, 1804. On Monday night of last week, the bridge across the Connecticut River between Hanover, N. H., and Norwich, Vt., fell and was crushed to ruins.”
“February 9, 1805. Mr. Elias Lyman of Hartford has erected a bridge across the Connecticut, between Lebanon, N. H., and Hartford, Vt. It connects the White River Turnpike with the Fourth New Hampshire Turnpike. Great advantages are promised from this bridge. Its construction is said to be excellent.”