“View of the Bridge over Charles River,” 1789 226
As early as 1713 Bostonians had mulled the construction of a bridge between Boston and Charlestown to replace the ferry that had operated since 1630. The opposition of Harvard College (which owned the ferry) and the difficulty of building a span strong enough to withstand tidal currents and ice floes thwarted plans until 1785 when the legislature approved a charter for the Charles River Bridge Company. The company consisted of 87 shareholders, including John Hancock, Thomas Russell, and Nathaniel Gorham. The shareholders agreed to assume the costs and risks of construction in exchange for the right to collect tolls for forty years (a term later extended to seventy years).
Construction was begun in the spring of 1785 and completed in thirteen months. The bridge was a marvel of eighteenth-century engineering. Seventy-five oak columns supported a span 1,503 feet long and 42 feet wide. A thirty-foot-wide drawbridge in the middle could be raised by two men, and lamps illuminated walkways along each rail. The bridge eliminated what had been an eight-mile detour to Brookline and was put into immediate use by pedestrians, coaches, wagons, and cattle-drivers. In the first four days alone, 500 vehicles and horses passed through the gates, paying tolls ranging from three pence to a shilling. Interest in the bridge was still strong in September 1789 when the illustration reproduced here appeared in Massachusetts Magazine (1:533).
The opening of the new bridge was timed to coincide with the eleventh anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June 1786 and was a grand event. Dignitaries paraded with artisans who had built the span and attended a banquet on the site of the battle. “I never saw such a vast crowd of people in my life, they poured in from every part of the country,” Lucy Cranch wrote her aunt Abigail Adams in London. “The Bridge looks beautifully in the evening, there are 40 lamps on it.” John Quincy Adams took a different view of the celebrations, refusing to attend what he considered
an affront to the memory of the fallen. “I do not think this was a proper place for revelling and feasting,” he wrote his sister. “The idea of being seated upon the bones of a friend, I should think would have disgusted many” (Lucy Cranch to Abigail Adams, 24 June 1786
; John Quincy Adams to Abigail Adams 2d, 18 May 1786
, both below).
Shareholders of the Charles River Bridge Company realized enormous returns. At the end of four decades, initial investments of £100 (about $333) returned profits of $7,000. The company enjoyed a monopoly until 1828 when the legislature voted to build another bridge despite the promise of exclusivity in the 1785 charter. The company litigated the matter in federal court, and a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the state's right to disregard the previous decree due to an overriding public interest (Stanley I. Kutler, Privilege and Creative Destruction: The Charles River Bridge Case, N.Y., 1971, 1–3, 6–13; Boston Gazette, 26 June 1786; Boston Independent Chronicle, 22 June 1786).
Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.