The New Bedford-Fairhaven Bridge
by Robert Demanche
Imagine a time, before the American Revolution, when the whaling industry began developing on the Acushnet River. One the west side of the river, ships sailed from Bedford Village. On the east side, a try-works for boiling down whale blubber was operating at Oxford. South of Oxford, separated by the tidal creek and pond which is now Cushman Park, Fairhaven Village was being settled.
One could sail or row across the river or travel north around the Head of the River. A ferry operated between the two shores in the 1780’s. The idea of a bridge must have entered a few minds but in 1796, William Rotch took action. Rotch and others incorporated as “Proprietors of the New Bedford-Fairhaven Bridge,” and the first order of business was to secure materials and the right-of-way.
They bought the Isle of Marsh, north of Oxford, from William Wood for $100, which provided them with stone and earth. Benjamin Sisson sold them a 40-foot way leading from the proposed bridge through his land “into the highway leading from Oxford to Fairhaven.” This highway was Main Street, extended from Fairhaven Village up to Oxford just a few years before.
The new bridge, built for $30,000, opened around 1800 at much the same location as we see it now but for two exceptions: The original bridge had two draws, one located between Fish Island and the New Bedford shore and the other between Pope’s Island and the Fairhaven shore. Secondly, the bridge took a more southerly route east of Pope’s Island, terminating at the present Bridge Street.
While providing easy access between the two shores, the bridge ultimately proved disastrous for the village of Oxford. As early as 1760, William Wood had established a landing place, try-works and sheds for storing oil. A few years later, a wharf and two or three stores stood at the end of Oxford Street and around 1781, shipbuilding began. Historian Daniel Ricketson wrote, “the village of Oxford at this period fairly rivaled her neighbor across the river.”
Soon Oxford would be easily accessible to Fairhaven and Bedford Villages with Main Street extended over the tidal creek to Fairhaven Village and the proposed bridge to Bedford. Instead of prosperity, the bridge helped ruin any chance Oxford had. The new bridge altered the current so as to shoal the channel, making it inconvenient for maritime business. Historian Henry B. Worth wrote, “The business at the wharf at the foot of Oxford Street ceased. The stores were abandoned and the land at the end of the point was devoted to houses…The construction of the bridge closed the mercantile career of Oxford Village.” Shipbuilding and other business activities were now shifting south of the bridge to Fairhaven Village. During the next 100 years, little of the town’s development would occur north of Oxford.
From the beginning, a toll was required to cross the bridge – 6¢ for each horse, hand cart, wheelbarrow or dozen sheep, swine or cattle. However, those caught and convicted of trying to slip past the toll gatherer without paying ended up paying more: $2 for every foot passenger and $4 for every “passenger on horseback, in a carriage, with a cart or team of any kind,” according to an 1821 notice.
A severe storm carried away the top of the bridge in 1807. The bridge, repaired that same year, lasted until the Great Gale of 1815 hit in September causing widespread destruction. The tide rose 10-11 feet higher than previously known, even rising above the bridge at Head of the River in Acushnet. Several lives were lost and the shipping industry suffered greatly. This time four years passed before the bridge was rebuilt.
Public transportation over the bridge did not begin until 1832. In that year Luther Wilson announced he would begin running “a carriage hourly between Four Corners at New Bedford and Fairhaven on the 3rd of April next.” One way fare to the usual stand or toll houses located at either end of the bridge was 8¢, or 12 1/2¢ if out of the normal route. His carriage also ran to Oxford.
The ferryboats continued to be popular in spite of the bridge. Ricketson summed up the sentiment held by some in 1858:
The bridge is still thought by many to be a great public damage. It is undoubtedly a great convenience on many accounts; but it is questionable whether it accommodates the public better than might be done by the ferry-boats; and, that the value of our harbor, as well as the beauty of the river, is much impaired by it, few will question.
Over the years, other means became available for crossing the bridge. Soule and Dunham of Fairhaven announced that a “cab” would commence running on December 5, 1842:
Passengers will be taken from the Village of Fairhaven (to New Bedford) and left anywhere between Bridge and Purchase Streets, on Middle Street and on Union Street for 12 1/2¢…Names to be left at Chandler’s New York Store, New Bedford; and at Dunham’s Hotel, Fairhaven.
In April 1843, Hiram D. Wentworth announced the purchase of “another of those Two Wheeled Safety Cabs” to take passengers to Fairhaven. The following year, New Bedford residents would no longer have to travel to the center to pick up a carriage, as conveyance was now offered from any part of their town to Fairhaven.
The first omnibus began its run in 1853 with 21-year-old Warren Chase of New Bedford as driver. Rufus A. Dunham and Co. advertised transport over the bridge at 5¢ or 25 tickets for a dollar. The omnibus line ran for 19 years.
A more seasonal and less formal means of crossing the river was by horse and sleigh across the river frozen with ice in the severely cold winters of the mid-1850’s. One news item stated:
TOLL SAVED. The Fairhaven Bridge is not doing as good business as usual at the present time, the public preferring to use the ice-bridge that spans the river, and save them toll. Teams of all descriptions very generally adopt this somewhat unusual way of crossing the Jordan that rolls between us and our Fairhaven neighbors.
The controversial toll was up for discussion but before any final action was taken, the Gale of 1869 nearly wiped out the bridge. This storm was second in intensity and destruction only to that in 1815. On the New Bedford side, the ship Siren broke from her moorings and crashed through the draw, demolishing it. The sea washed over the entire length of the roadway. The omnibus got caught on Pope’s Island where heavy stones and timber from the bridge’s south railing blocked out the road, forcing the passengers to remain there overnight.
Fairhaven began rebuilding the bridge soon after while New Bedford debated whether to build a section on their side a mile further north. The new wooden structure, costing $45,000, was finally completed in about the same location. A month after the storm, the state legislature declared it a free bridge and awarded the former owners $21,000 in compensation, one-fifth of which was paid by Fairhaven and the rest by the county and by New Bedford. The county then assumed control of the bridge while Fairhaven and New Bedford continued to share maintenance costs.
In July of 1870, an article appearing in the Standard described the reconstructed bridge:
A PRETTY SIGHT. The bridge is now lit up in the evening its entire length, Fairhaven having put similar posts and lights on the east end as on the western portion. The travel across the bridge is large, especially in the evening, our citizens availing themselves of the cool breezes and the beautiful prospect.
Removing the tolls seemed to have helped landlords as another article a month later stated:
One of the results of the free bridge is there is not a vacant tenement in Fairhaven at the present time, while at the same time last year, there were quite a number.
By 1872 horse-cars were established and soon became a popular means of crossing the bridge. Two decades later the tracks were torn up to make way for the electric trolley.
As the 20th century approached, New Bedford experienced a population explosion when many immigrants came to work in the city’s mills. A more efficient bridge was needed. When construction began in 1893, Henry Huttleston Rogers, working behind the scenes, saw to it that the bridge road would be built in a straight line from Pope’s Island, reaching the shoreline north of the former Bridge Street location. Although this generated a good deal of controversy and extra cost, Rogers probably pushed the idea as part of a broader plan. It is likely he already had picked out a spot for a new high school and envisioned this monument to be the center attraction for the traveler entering the town from New Bedford. Rogers later completed the vista by acquiring and landscaping the area north and south of the road leading off the bridge and presenting it to the town.
Two other changes were made on the New Bedford side. The new draw would be located between Pope’s Island and Fish Island. Also, after much debate, the road off the bridge was built over the railroad tracks instead of coming in at grade. When hearings were held on the matter, the need appeared acute: Fairhaven resident Hiram F. Wilde testified, “I got into a little scrape there. The draw was open and I accidentally fetched up right on the railroad. Here were teams behind me and teams in front of me. If a train of cars had come along then, where would I have been? I couldn’t back out or turn out.” John I Bryant stated, “…the trolley slipped the wire and the car stopped still right on the railroad tracks, and I have known that thing to occur at three different times when I have been in the car.”
The new bridge, completed in 1902, cost 1.4 million, of which Fairhaven’s share was almost $51,000. Soon a new means of transportation, the automobile, would be crossing the bridge. Meanwhile, the draw-tender had to endure the grumblings from impatient trolley riders and others waiting to cross as the bridge opened to let boats through. In 1930 the Commonwealth took over control of the bridge, sparing Fairhaven and New Bedford $60,000 a year in maintenance costs.
Auto traffic increased during the 1940’s. More and more drivers found themselves waiting as the bridge opened for coal barges to pass through. Not until 1947 was auto traffic given precedence over marine traffic. For two hours during each morning, noon and evening rush hour, the bridge would not be opened. Traffic backups and delays became so frequent that in the mid-1950’s the bridge was considered New Bedford’s biggest traffic problem. Merchants downtown and on Pope’s Island lost customers to other shipping areas.
In 1964 an average of 22,500 cars crossed the bridge every day, more in the summer months when travelers drove Route Six to Cape Cod. At the same time, ship traffic going to New Bedford fish processing plants north of the bridge tripled from 1961 to 1967 while the number of large ocean-going vessels subjected to “threading the needle” through the open bridge increased from 9 to 84 per year. Other solutions were being considered: an elevated bridge, a tunnel, a new drawbridge.
For the past 20 years, plans have been debated, spurred on by the frequent mechanical problems of a drawbridge three-quarters of a century old. Local, state and federal officials in 1983 finally agreed to replace the current bridge with a new draw having a higher 10 foot clearance. The entire project, estimated at around 20 million, would create an expected 18 month long problem for marine traffic, motorists and local businesses. A large question remains regarding the possible harmful effects of disturbing the sediment laden with PCB’s, a hazardous chemical compound. Proposals for disposing of the dredged sediment on Marsh Island have already met with opposition from Fairhaven residents.
Today, easy access across the Acushnet River via the bridge is to some extent taken for granted. The distance between New Bedford and Fairhaven seems but a minute away, or five to ten minutes if you have to wait as the bridge opens. The benefit of easy access is obvious. Not so obvious is the importance of the location of the first bridge in determining the pattern of early development of the collection of villages and farms soon to be known as the Town of Fairhaven.
This essay was originally published in A Picture History of Fairhaven by Spinner Publications in 1986.