The first bridge across the Connecticut River at any point in its entire course was at Bellows Falls. Col. Enoch Hale, a prominent resident of this vicinity, built it in 1785. It was the only bridge across the river until 1796, when one was built at Springfield, Mass. The bridge here was one of the most noted of that early time, there being few as long in New England, and none in so wild a section of country as this. The Massachusetts Spy of February 10, 1785, had this to say about the enterprise, ” This bridge is thought to exceed any ever built in America in strength, elegance, and public utility, as it is the direct way from Boston through New Hampshire, and Vermont to Canada.” This old first bridge was of entirely different style of building from the present.
In the summer of 1912, the director of the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany, with his staff, visited this country and secured several masterpieces which they considered as reproductions of the best types of those old wooden bridges, and among those that are now on exhibition in that museum, is the picture of this Bellows Falls Bridge, reproduced from the painting of it which hangs in the Rockingham Library, executed by the late Frederick J. Blake. It was recommended and furnished by the executive officials of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers as one of the most important wooden bridges in America at that early day. It was selected from among eight or nine structures, or was one of them. This list was as follows: Arch bridge over the Delaware at Trenton, built in 1804; Market Street bridge over the Schuylkill, near Philadelphia, built in 1805; bridge over Mill Creek, Cincinnati; bridge over the Connecticut River at Bellows Falls, built in 1785; Cascade bridge at Lanesboro on the New York and Erie Railroad, built in 1848; the bridge of the Richmond and St. Petersburg Railroad (Southern Railway), over the James River at Richmond, built in 1836; the Long bridge of the Georgia and Western Atlantic Railroad; the Howe bridge of the Connecticut River Railroad (Boston & Maine), over the Chicopee River, the largest trestle bridge in the world at those early times, built in 1852, burned in 1878.
One of the most prominent citizens of Bellows Falls a century ago was a man named Nathaniel Tucker. In 1826, he came into possession of the old first toll bridge across the Connecticut River here, and in 1840, he planned and financed the erection of the present structure that has now served the public 88 years. Mr. Tucker was born in Boston in 1775, and became a resident in Bellows Falls in 1815. He died here in 1875, and his remains were interred in a private family vault on Boston Common, near the Public Gardens.
The first bridge became unsafe, and, in 1840, Mr. Tucker consulted a noted local bridge builder, Sanford Granger, in regard to it. Together they planned and built the present structure. Mr. Granger had built a number of important bridges and buildings in the vicinity of Bellows Falls, prominent among them the local Methodist church and the brick block on Westminster Street, which has always been known as the “Granger Block.” He owned the sawmill and waterpower at North Westminster, where the Gage basket factory is now being operated, and, at this mill, the lumber for the new bridge was produced. Toll was gathered for passing these two bridges from 1785, when the first bridge was built, until the towns of Rockingham and Westminster made the present bridge free on November 1, 1904, a period of nearly 120 years.
Previous to coming to Bellows Falls in 1815, Mr. Tucker had been in trade in New York City. During the first years of his residence here, he lived in a large and beautiful residence located at the east end of the bridge on a small eminence, which was removed by the building of the railroad. It was just south of where the present locomotive roundhouse of the Boston & Maine Railroad stands. Later, he owned and resided in the residence this side of the river, now known as the Hetty Green Place, sometimes called by the older residents the “Tucker House.”
During most of the years of his ownership of the bridges, Mr. Tucker attended to the collection of the tolls himself, and one of the original boxes in which the tolls were kept is still in the family of Levi L. Wetherbee of Atkinson Street, who is one of the descendants. Mr. Tucker was a small wiry man, extremely nervous, and was often the victim of pranks by the boys who teased him. He had a son, Nathaniel, Jr., who was somewhat peculiar and erratic. He was a hunter of some note. At one time, he went hunting on horseback, and in riding through the woods, his gun was accidentally discharged and killed the horse. His father, when he returned home and was told of the accident, was greatly excited, and shaking his cane in the young man’s face exclaimed, “Nat-Nat Tucker, the next time you go hunting on horseback, you go afoot,” much to the amusement of several bystanders.
In 1839, there was a great freshet and the frame bridge at South Charlestown, known as the Cheshire Bridge, was washed away, coming clown the river whole. The old sign still remained on the front end: “Passengers are not to Pass Faster than a Walk.” The old toll bridge was much lower than the present one, and Mr. Tucker feared for its safety if the oncoming bridge came over the falls whole. Neighbors who saw Mr. Tucker that day often told of his great excitement as the bridge neared the falls, and he frantically motioned with his cane shouting to the bridge to go on the Vermont side where there was more room. As the bridge neared the dam, it suddenly fell apart and passed under Mr. Tucker’s bridge without harming it.
Mr. Tucker was an ardent churchman, much troubled at hearing profanity used. The fact that he was very brusque, and sometimes thoughtless in his reproofs, caused the boys to annoy him greatly. He was a most ardent friend of Rev. Carlton Chase, rector of Immanuel (Episcopal) Church, who later became bishop of New Hampshire. Mr. Chase was with Mr. Tucker during the freshet referred to above when the water was so high it was in danger of lifting the toll bridge off its abutments. Assisting in tying it with ropes, Rector Chase fell into the rushing rapids, nearly losing his life. A rope was quickly thrown to him, which he grasped, and by which he was drawn, much exhausted, to safety.
Once each year, Mr. Tucker advertised in the local newspaper that “all those from New Hampshire points who wished to attend the Christmas services at Immanuel Church could pass the bridge free of toll.” The Christmas services were at that time much more extensive than at present, including illumination of buildings, open hospitality; and, with fine music, they drew crowds from thirty miles around.
When staging times excited much competition, at one time the ordinary fare from Boston to Bellows Falls was $3.00, but for a short time, even that was reduced to 25 cents. Drivers sometimes ran the bridge to get here first. One day, Driver Brooks ran the bridge and was followed by Mr. Tucker to the local Stage House. He exclaimed with much heat, “You run my bridge-the fine is $2,” upon which Mr. Brooks drew out his wallet and offered to pay; but Mr. Tucker turned away much calmed, saying, “Well-don’t ever do it again.”
Old residents never tired of telling anecdotes of the peculiarities, as well as the good qualities, of “Old Nathaniel Tucker.”
At the New Hampshire end of the old toll bridge, during the first half of the last century, stood a large building known in its last years as the “Tucker Mansion,” erected previous to 1799. It was built for a hotel and known early as “The Walpole Bridge Hotel.” In 1817, it was known as the “Mansion House Hotel.” Soon after the latter date, it became a dwelling house and was long occupied by Nathaniel Tucker, who owned the toll bridge, and the tollhouse also was located on the New Hampshire side of the river, just in front of it. These buildings, with numerous outhouses, were, in their day, the most entitled to the name of “Mansion” of any in this whole region, because of their grand proportions, elegant surroundings of gardens, statuary, and decorative trees and foliage. They were a prominent feature of the landscape when the “Great Falls” were noted far and wide for their scenic beauty. Persons coming from the south to this vicinity were struck by their beauty and majestic location. They were removed when the railroad was built in 1849. The small elevation upon which they stood was cut down and is now occupied by the railroad engine house, the mansion formerly standing just where the latter buildings do today. The timbers of which the old mansion were constructed were utilized in the erection of several of the dwellings this side of the river, as an era of home building of large proportions immediately followed the building of the railroads into this village. Mr. Tucker then purchased the brick dwelling on Church Street, now known as the “Hetty Green” House, and there, spent his last years, still taking tolls at his bridge, which he had rebuilt in 1840.
Based on: The Connecticut River Valley in southern Vermont and New Hampshire: historical sketches, Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Co., Marble City Press, 1929.