The Backwards Bridge

backwards bridgebackwards bridge

The “backwards bridge” in 1999. This view (looking upstream) shows the long retaining wall which sparked the controversy.

This is the story of the “backwards bridge.” In the 1970s and 1980s, controversies erupted in our town over relatively simple issues. This story was a combination of New England “second-guessing” and the usual amount of trouble that occurs when large sums of tax money are involved. The Town Meeting of March 1972 was asked to “…raise and appropriate the sum of $7000 for reconstructing a bridge…on the North Road….” The North Road is what we now call Valley Road. The bridge in question spanned Spaulding Brook and was installed in the 1920s. The bridge was actually older because it was originally built 20 years before to span Granite Brook on the old Concord Road. When the Concord Road Bridge was replaced with a more modern structure, it was disassembled and reinstalled on Valley Road. Thus, by 1970, it had reached the end of its usable life and the State bridge inspector insisted that it be replaced.

The State offered to design, contract, and built a modern bridge. The town needed to put up 1/8 of the cost and the state would pick up the rest. The warrant article at the 1972 town meeting was designed to put up the town’s share with $3500 coming from taxes and the balance to be bonded. The overall cost was estimated at $56,000. We have no record of what was discussed at the meeting, but the vote (73 yeas, 16 nays) would suggest that the majority thought it was a good deal.

The state spent some time designing the new bridge and construction didn’t begin until the summer of 1973. In the fall of that year, the new bridge was opened for traffic. The bridge was much higher than it predecessor but was slightly narrower. The contractors had used massive amounts of concrete to built solid abutments as well as long retaining walls. The project came in at $1500 under the original estimate and that should have made everyone happy, but that was not to be.

Road Agent Francis Johnson was the first to label the bridge “backwards.” This started some mumbling around town about bureaucrats from Concord who could never seem to get anything right. Mr. Johnson explained his theory by noting that the retaining wall on the downstream side was larger than the upstream side. He also complained that the span was too small to accommodate the spring floods.

State Engineer Floyd Avery explained that the wall on the downstream side was built to hold in the embankment which had been raised higher than the original roadbed. He noted that the narrow opening had been set in such a way as to slow the force of the water. This created a calm pool that would shelter fish. The idea of sheltering fish brought more than a few hoots around town!

However, the real cause for discontent in town was voiced by former Selectman George Whitham. He is quoted as saying, “I don’t see why we have to spend $54,000 on a bridge over a river I could spit across!” Selectman Raymond Scott replied, “It’s one of the best built bridges I’ve ever seen, maybe even better than it had to be.” The final word on the issue seemed to come from Francis Johnson. After his initial skepticism, he agreed with Selectmen Scott and added that it was a good deal because, “…$47,000 was free because it came from the state.” The issue seemed to die down at that point.

Today, the “backwards bridge” continues to serve its purpose. It has survived numerous spring freshets as well as the great floods of July 1987 and October 2005. If you pause on a sunny day and look over the edge, you might see an occasional brook trout pausing in the “quiet zone” next to the retaining wall.