J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

See a Piece of Concord’s North Bridge

I grew up in suburban Boston around the time of the Bicentennial. In fact, I was in fifth grade, when the Massachusetts social-studies curriculum focuses on colonial and Revolutionary history, during the 200th anniversary of the first year of the War for Independence. So between geography, chronology, and ordinary lesson plans I got a triple dose of Revolutionary history.

But I didn’t grow up in the iconic towns of Lexington or Concord. What was that like? Joel Bohy of the Skinner auction house recently described one highlight of that period for him:

I was a 9-year-old attending the Ripley School in Concord. During a bicentennial ceremony, I received a small block of wood, and so did all of the other students at the school. Our teacher told us that these pieces of wood were remnants of the North Bridge. Even then, I wondered what happened to the original bridge, and how did these pieces survive? . . .

According to town of Concord records, the bridge at which the famous fight took place was built in 1760, replacing an earlier one. By the early 1790s, new roads and bridges provided alternate routes that rendered the famous bridge useless. In 1793, it was disassembled and moved to the site of the current Flint bridge. Since the town was not paying for the removal work, the crew reused most of the wood and stone buttments from the North Bridge site at the new Flint bridge.
Skipping ahead, in 1955 the Massachusetts Department of Public Works decided to build a new bridge at the site of the North Bridge that would resemble the span that had been there in 1775.
As construction commenced, the crew brought draglines to work the bottom of the river, and discovered pieces of the original bridge from 1760. These pieces must have been left behind in 1793 because they were too difficult to remove from the river bed.

With modern technology, of course, this removal process was much easier. The town of Concord received the wooden beams that were recovered. They cut some of the beams into pieces and mounted the blocks of wood on plaques or gave them to schools – including mine – for bicentennial celebrations. I’ve held on to my memento of the bridge ever since.

The town left a few of the best beams intact and donated them to the Concord Antiquarian Society, now the Concord Museum. One of those pieces, a witness to the events of April 19, 1775, is a large side brace of the original bridge with a tenon on the end that had been pegged into a mortise on the main frame of the bridge.
That beam helped to support the British search party that crossed the bridge on its way to James Barrett’s farm, and the British companies that lingered around the bridge to secure the position, and the militiamen who marched down on those companies and just across the bridge when they decided to confront the regulars. (It also supported the search party as those men marched back across the bridge after both sides of the fatal skirmish had pulled back.)

Along with a lot of other artifacts, that beam will be part of an exhibit at the Concord Museum titled “The Shot Heard Round the World: April 19, 1775,” which Joel has been working on for years now. It will open on Friday, 18 April, and stay open until 21 September. If you’re anywhere around here this spring or summer, you won’t want to miss it.


Anne B. Hill said...

I grew up in Acton in the 1960's and we marched to the bridge with the Acton Minutemen. I loved it. Isaac Davis's plow was behind the altar in our church. When we moved to Hanscom AFB, we discovered the site of Paul Revere's capture was outside the gate near our base housing. When I moved to Ohio, I constantly got in trouble with all the coaches who "taught" American History, because I had a habit of correcting them. I was kicked out of junior literature class for "claiming" I had taken swimming lessons in Walden Pond. The Midwest is tough on New England kids!

Charles Bahne said...

Another piece of wood from the bridge is on permanent display in the North Bridge Visitor Center of Minute Man National Historical Park. It's in the room that doubles as the Visitor Center's bookstore, mounted high on a wall above a door to the adjoining terrace. This piece of wood looks like a blank from the bridge; but, according to a caption mounted nearby, it's actually a slice of one of the bridge's posts.

The story that I recall hearing is that the bridge was washed away by a flood, circa 1793, and that the town then rerouted the roads, building two new bridges -- one upstream and one downstream -- so that the old bridge was no longer necessary. This is, of course, a minor variant of Joel Bohy's story, and he says that his version is based on the town records.