What do You Call that Long Bridge across the Charles?

May 10, 2011
By

-By Penny Cherubino

Whether you call it the Harvard Bridge or the Mass Ave Bridge, it’s a handy part of life for Bostonians. Early on it was dubbed the “Xylophone Bridge” for the sounds emitted as vehicles crossed its wooden deck.

When a head-on collision closed this vital link during rush hour last December, gridlock spread through Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge. Dozens of officers were dispatched to intersections to keep traffic moving. That situation is not surprising, since the bridge carries about 30,000 vehicles a day.

Harvard Bridge History
The Massachusetts Legislature first authorized that a bridge be built between Boston and Cambridge in 1874.

After years of the two cities doing nothing and then bickering, Cambridge asked that Boston be compelled to move forward with the project. In 1887, a bill passed requiring the cities to build the link between their shores.

Named to honor John Harvard, founder of Harvard College, the bridge opened to public traffic on September 1, 1891, and will soon mark 120 years of service.                                           It was originally a draw bridge with a swing span that opened to let boat traffic pass, two lanes for horse drawn vehicles, two lines of street car tracks, and sidewalks for pedestrians.

Cambridge Shore Benefits

The opening of this connection brought changes to both cities. But, for Cambridge there was great gain.

“The low land and marshes on the Cambridge side, formerly almost valueless, have been filled in and have become valuable; and Cambridge is now connected with the choicest residential portions of Boston,” wrote the Harvard Bridge Commissioners in their 1892 report.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) saw its future in that big tract of land across the river. The school purchased a mile long stretch of Cambridge riverfront and by 1916 had moved from the Back Bay to this new campus.

Smoots

An MIT prank created the well-known Smoot labels along the bridge. In 1958, five-foot seven-inch pledge, Oliver Smoot, was used by his fraternity brothers to mark the bridge with their newly created measurement. The bridge is 364.4 Smoots long.

This might have been a parody of the precision needed for engineering measurements, but it became a tradition, and ultimately an accurate measurement for some. In 1999, the MIT News reported, “When the bridge was rebuilt in the 1980s, the Cambridge police requested that the Smoots remain because they use them to indicate precise locations in accident reports.”

Harry Houdini

A plaque near the pedestrian ramp to the Esplanade commemorates Harry Houdini, “…who performed one of his well known escapes from this bridge on May 1, 1908.”

It was a most successful stunt. He survived the jump from the bridge, escaped his chains, and drew record crowds for two weeks of performances at Boston’s Keith’s Theatre.

Reconstruction

A complete reconstruction of the bridge was completed in 1990. That project took seven years and cost $16.3 million. While you may think of the clean lines of this structure as a modern design, a historical survey guided the work.

The bridge was rebuilt as near to the look of the original as possible while improving the structural integrity.

Many Bostonians cross over, under, and along side the Harvard Bridge as they drive, ride, walk, jog, paddle, or sail through their day. The next time you find yourself using the bridge, pause and think about how it has stood with its footings planted in the mud of the Charles River and served two cities for 120 years.

  • Anonymous

    Nice article.  One correction: the Reverend John Harvard didn’t found the university.  He was a contributor only.  Check the facts, please.

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