Thursday, July 5, 2012

Meadow Road Bridge/Pequabuck Bridge, Farmington, CT

Meadow Road Bridge
A few weeks ago, I did a mondo post on every bridge on the national historic register in Hartford County. I got most of them. Except the Pequabuck Bridge in Farmington. I thought the Pequabuck Bridge was the one that the Pequabuck River ran beneath. That was wrong.

Still not the Pequabuck Bridge. Is it?
Or, well, maybe not. Because even the Pequabuck Bridge isn't called that any more; it's the Meadow Road Bridge, because the river was diverted at some point to the new place, and now the only really significant thing about the bridge is the path over, part of the East Coast Greenway, a network of paths and trails stretching down the entire east coast.

From the 1984 application for the national historic register
The Pequabuck Bridge is an arched, brownstone span that was built between 1832 and 1833. It's a rubble stone bridge; the outside of the arch is made of shaped and fitted sandstone, but most of the rest of the stones are roughly shaped or not shaped at all. The bridge was built with a wooden structure forming the arch, the outsides of the arch were fitted on that, including the keystones to hold them in place, and then they filled up the frame with stones and lime-based mortar until they filled it to the top. They removed the wooden frame in the arch, and had themselves a bridge.

The wooden bridges I photograph are usually fairly new because wood bridges just don't last -- even if done in the style of the bridge they replaced, they are not the same bridge. This is the real thing. Stonemasons built this bridge a hundred and thirty years ago, and it still stands today. The only change -- the mortar is now concrete instead of lime. This bridge could easily last another hundred and eighty years, especially now that no river runs through it.

Back in the 19th century, this bridge took people from the crowded town of Farmington into what was called the Great Plain, a large plateau of fields, meadows and swamps. This bridge was, then, a vital part of the local economy and needed to be strong and last. This bridge replaced at least one wooden bridge, and you can easily imagine the frustration the townsfolk felt at having to keep repairing and replacing the wooden bridge, causing them to build a bridge that would last.

Part of the Great Plain area was incorporated as the town of Plainville, so that's how that got its name.

I'm just going to copy text wholesale from the historical register application, because the history of the area and its bridges is fascinating.

In  the  second  half of  the  18th  century  the  quest  for  land  to  cultivate impelled the  sons of Farmington residents  to range  farther and  farther  from the  central  settlement.  Led  by members  of  the  well-to-do Cowles  family, Farmington  people  established  farms  in  the  Great  Plain,  the  area  that  was incorporated  as  the  town of  Plainville  in  1869.  After  the  Revolutionary War,  agricultural-based  commerce  underwent  tremendous  expansion,  as Farmington  farmers  sold  their  surplus  output  to  local  merchants  who assembled  shipments  of  grain and  cattle  to  sell  in  the  nation's  growing cities  or  to  export  to  the  West  Indies.  These  two  trends  of  geographic expansion  and  commercial  growth put  pressure  on  the  transportation  routes over  which  farmers  carried their  goods  to  the  merchants  in  the  center. 
Farmers west of  town,  from the  Great  Plain and  its  northern meadows,  had to cross  the  Pequabuck River,  which  lay  between  their  farms  and  the  town  cen­ter,  so  this  crossing came  in  for  close  attention.  In  1801,  the  town meeting appropriated $200  to  improve  the  wooden bridge  then  in  place.  Then in  1819  the  town  rebuilt  it  entirely,  using timber.
Farmington merchants played an  important  role  in  the  promotion and  financing of  the  Farmington Canal.  The  canal  increased  the  town's prosperity,  making it  a  market  center  for  the  region  including not  only western Farmington  but also  Burlington and Canton.  The  surge  in  road  traffic  that  resulted again brought  the  conditon of bridges to  the  top of  the  town's agenda.  In  1830 a committee  of  the  selectmen plus  two western  farmers,  Richard  Cowles  and Joshua  Youngs,  was  appointed to  study  the  town's  bridges.  Two were  found inadequate:  Pequabuck Bridge  (i.e.,  Meadow Road  Bridge)  and  Perry's Bridge in  the  northern part of  town.  The  relatively greater  importance  of  the Pequabuck crossing  is  apparent  in  the  committee's  recommendation to  rebuild it  in  stone,  while wood was  specified  for  the  new Perry's  Bridge. 
The  recommendations  took  full  account  of  physical coordination  with  the canal,  which Meadow Road crossed about  450  feet  east of  the  Pequabuck River. The  committee made  the  requirements  that  the  new  stone  bridge be  the  same height  as  the  one  over  the  canal,  and  that  an  embankment be  built  between the  two bridges  so  that  travel  would proceed at  a  constant grade.  Without the  embankment,  wagons would have  had  to  climb and descend  two  rises within several  hundred  feet.  The  resolution that  approved the  plan was  contingent on  the  canal  company's  agreeing  to  "raise  and extend  the  Canal  bridge embankment between  the  canal  bridge  and  river  bridge,  in  such manner as  that the  one  may be  adapted  to  the  other;  arid  provided that  the  canal  company will  permit  the  town  to  take  gravel  from the  Company's  ground  for  the purpose of extending the  embankment westwardly  from the  river  bridge." 
The  relative prosperity of  Farmington,  and  the  provision of materials by  the canal  company,  enabled construction of  the  stone  bridge.  Connecticut  towns rarely  undertook  such  ambitious bridge-building  projects  in  the  early  19th century;  the  great  majority  of  town  bridges  in  the  state  were  of  wood.  
There  was  not  even a  mason  in  Farmington who  could perform  the  work,  so Horace  Cowles  took on  the  task of  finding  a  qualified contractor.  His  four finalists  came  from the  towns  of  Windham,  Woodbridge,  Watertown and Haddam. (The  contract  for  the  bridge's  construction has  not  survived,  so  it  is  not possible  to  determine  which  of  the  four  actually  performed  the  work.) Farmington was  not  extravagant with  its  public  expenditures,  despite  opting for  the  more  expensive  stone  construction.  Economical  construction  was assured  by  limiting  the  cutting  and  fitting  of  stones  to  only  the  areas where  it  was  absolutely necessary,  the  outside  edges  of  the  arch.  Even with the  savings  from this  technique,  the  bridge  cost  $1,081,  nearly  twice  as much  as  the  $546  it  took  to  rebuild Perry's  Bridge  in  timber.  The  limited use  of  cut  stone  makes  Meadow  Road  Bridge  highly  distinctive.  In comparison,  Hartford's  Main  Street  Bridge,  another  arched brownstone  span from the  early  1830s,  has  cut-and-fitted masonry  for  the  entire  underside  of the  arch,  the  spandrels  and  the  parapets.
The  idiosyncratic  mix of  finished and unfinished stone  identifies  Meadow Road  Bridge as  the product of a  specific  time  and  place.  Farmington  had more wealth than most  inland Connecticut  communities,  permitting the  use  of the  more  expensive  stone  construction.  But  its  people  still  retained  the basic conservative  impulse  of outlying Connecticut  towns,  and  they would not countenance  the  fullest  application of  expensive masons'  labor.  Thus  Meadow Road  Bridge  illuminates  the  concerns of  a  community as  its  economy  evolved from one  of  subsistence and  local  commerce  to  one of market  growth based  on regional  and extra-regional  trade.  The  bridge  also makes clear  the  impact of  the  Farmington Canal.  Not  only did  the  canal  contribute  significantly  to the  growth of  the market economy,  but  it  altered the  physical makeup of  the town  and  forced  the  townspeople  to  adapt  their  road  system  to  the  new conditions.
Meadow  Road  Bridge  belongs  to  an  extremely  small  group  of  early  19th-century,  masonry  town bridges.  Ante-bellum stone  bridges were  built  by the  Housatonic  Railroad and by  factory owners,  but publicly  funded  stone bridges  were  not  common.  Meadow Road Bridge  and  Hartford's  Main  Street Bridge  are  the  only examples of  their  size  known  to  survive  in  the  state.