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Friday, May 15, 2009

Bridge Street - Springfield, Mass

Bridge Street in Springfield, Massachusetts, was named so because it was the road leading off the first bridge in western Massachusetts across the Connecticut River. That bridge is gone now, and Bridge Street no longer leads to any bridge. But it’s interesting that by examining the history of one single street we can see a world through time in microcosm.

This first bridge across the Connecticut River, the longest river in New England (our “mighty Mississipp” if you will), was built in 1804, a generation since our Independence from Great Britain. It was funded by public lotteries.

This was a toll bridge, designed and built by Isaac Damon of Northampton, who also built Springfield’s Old First Church. It was, typically, a covered bridge, painted red, and on its dedication ceremony on October 30, 1804, cannon fired in salute, first from one bank of the river, and then the other. Wagons were charged 10 cents to cross, with 10 cents extra for each horse. Schoolchildren were allowed to cross for a special rate of 25 cents per month.

The bridge collapsed in June, 1814 after only ten years of service. It was speculated that the heavy supply Army wagon trains repeatedly crossing the bridge during the War of 1812 was a contributing factor.

The bridge was replaced by another covered toll bridge in 1818, which linked Bridge Street in Springfield to the isolated towns on the western side of the river. Besides the ease of movement, and the ease of commerce this bridge provided, it also transformed Bridge Street from a quiet neighborhood of settlers to a business district.

In the 1800s, there were three Protestant churches on Bridge Street, when in the middle of the century the Yankee population were joined by Irish and French Canadian laborers, many of whom worked on the nearby New York, New Hampshire, and Hartford Railroad.

Some famous tenants on Bridge Street were the family of Broadway’s most famous song and dance man George M. Cohan when performing locally. The family of artist James Whistler also lived on Bridge Street for a brief period. Still a fairly bucolic setting, local businessman Charles H. Hunt remembered skating on Frost Pond, which he recalled in an article for the Springfield Republican in 1914, used to stand between Main and Dwight streets.

Artist James Whistler.

In the 1850s, a small wooden Bridge Street School was located here. A roller-skating rink was built in 1879 “when the roller-skating craze was at its height….” recounted a Springfield Republican article from October 3, 1895. The building served a variety of uses afterwards, in the early 1890s was rented by a horse dealer named Sheckler. The building was torn down in 1895 for a new city market.

The Bridge Street Theatre was built in 1893, replacing C.B. Maxwell’s three-story furniture store. All three floors were torn out and a balcony was run around the building. Prices at the theater ran from 10 cents to 35 cents. Possibly this is where the Cohans played.

In the 1890s there were plumbers and laborers on Bridge Street, clerks, and a peddler named Cohen. Because of the massive Old Toll Bridge, still standing after decades of use, Bridge was a main artery into the city, yet at this time was still very much an ethnic neighborhood. There lived a large concentration of Irish at the beginning of Bridge Street where it met Water Street, and many French Canadians. Two of the Protestant churches had left by this time, following their congregations outward to other areas of the city.

Despite the daily traffic of wagons, walkers and the new bicycles across the bridge, Bridge Street still had only a few stores at this time to attract them. The only large business was the F.S. Carr bicycle factory.

Bridge Street created a bazaar-like scene with Jenks’ Bakery, Sheldon’s fish market, Gleason & Broughall’s Catholic bookstore, Phillips grocery, the livery stable run by Mr. Fuller and Mr. Sheckler, and a pair of housewives who advertised as clairvoyants.

Representing the skilled trades were Sanderson & Son furriers, embalmer John Clune, and harness maker Theophile Regnier. Garratt Barry was a liquor dealer, and F.E. Howles sold beef wholesale.

With stables and fish markets, there were apparently no zoning laws for either health or basic comfort in the 1890s. Not on Bridge Street. The predominant industry was the taking in of borders. Families seemed to have made as much a business of it as the nearby Winkler Hotel. At this time, Bridge Street was still very residential.

It was not until the automobile boom that Bridge Street transformed from residential neighborhood to business district. By 1909, there was increased travel over the bridge. The large employers with offices on Bridge Street included the Fisk Rubber Company, S.E. Buxton maker of leather goods, the Maynard Rubber Corporation, and the Thacker Paper Company. There were dealers in office equipment, shoe stores, dental supplies, express companies, plumbing supplies, wholesale butter and egg merchants, and the Eastern State Refrigerating Company. The saloons grew to three, and a final Protestant church was built, the Trinity Methodist. Sheckler’s horse stable was torn down.

Joining the Irish and French Canadian residents in a new surge of population from Europe, were Armenians, German Jews, Greeks, and Poles, working as tailors, shoemakers, jewelers, and as laborers in the few nearby factories or as yardmen on the NY, NH & H Railroad.

The street lost some of its world-unto-itself quality and began to blend in fully with the downtown district when government offices occupied several blocks. The State Employment Office, the City Forester’s Office, offices for the Inspector of Coal, the Inspector of Milk and Vinegar, and the Sealer of Weights and Measures located here. They were joined by the Water Commissioner, the City Engineer, and the Street and Sewer Department.

Through the era of World War I, Bridge Street seemed to continue to be a stopping ground for new immigrants, but these newcomers would not establish themselves here, but move on in a year or two to other burgeoning neighborhoods. There were less shops on Bridge Street, less vacant rooms to rent or small places of business for them to work or own.

The Broadway Theatre and the Geisha Theatre for that new entertainment, the moving picture, were built here on Bridge Street in 1913 and 1914, respectively. The old Bridge Street Theatre had since been torn down. The Trinity Methodist Church followed its congregation to Sumner Avenue.

Perhaps the biggest change on Bridge Street was the new streets that were carved out between the Bridge Street and Worthington Street, which ran parallel to each other. These new side streets were Phelps, Church, Simmons, and Broadway. Columbus Avenue took the place of old Water Street.

In 1922 the biggest event to change Bridge Street forever took place a block south on Vernon Street. Here, a new bridge was built to replace the now over 100-year-old Old Toll Bridge.

Called the Hampden County Memorial Bridge, Governor Channing H. Cox presided over the dedication ceremonies on August 2, 1922. A block north, the Old Toll Bridge was torn down, and Bridge Street no longer connected to a bridge. Also, the old railroad bridge underpass on Bridge Street which allowed the NY, NH & H Railroad to cross the street as it followed the course of the Connecticut River, was bricked up, over protest by local residents. One end of Bridge Street cut off, the end that had been the gateway to America for generations of immigrants. Vernon Street was widened to accommodate heavy automobile traffic off the new bridge.

In 1924, two years later, the resident population of Bridge Street dwindled. Those who remained worked as salesmen or chauffeurs, lunch room workers. There were four lunch rooms on Bridge Street now to accommodate office workers in the Stearns Building. This building contained the offices of Globe Indemnity, and over a dozen other insurance agencies, dentists, and other professionals.

The Fisk and Maynard rubber companies were gone, as was the Geisha Theatre, the fish and meat markets. The Norcross-Cameron Garage sold Chrysler, Chalmers, Maxwell, and Peerless cars. Bailey & Son was the only carriage maker left, and one assumes he saw the handwriting on the wall.

The majority of the people working on Bridge Street now did not live there, and they were white collar workers and not skilled tradesmen or laborers.

Bridge Street grew into a vibrant and somewhat independent and self-sustaining neighborhood while the bridge was there, and then changed when the bridge was torn down. Neighborhood became business district, which then became only a side street in a much larger, more inter-dependent downtown. It was no longer a world unto itself.

Note: The photo of George M. Cohan is from the Library of Congress, originally published by the Bain News Service, now in public domain. The photo of James Whistler is likewise from the Library of Congress, now in public domain.

Program for the Broadway Theatre, author's collection.

All other photos are from the Image Museum website, photos posted for free use.


Unknown said...

A fascinating history. It's really astounding to think of a covered bridge spanning the Connecticut that far downriver & holding up for 100 years. There were a lot of covered bridges in Vermont when I was growing up, but they were always crossing much smaller rivers.

Great economic history.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, John, thanks for stopping by. Actually, the Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge over the CT River connecting Windsor, VT with Cornish, NH (see past post here is well over 140 years old by now, and I believe is considered the longest covered bridge in the US. I'd be willing to bet that the river in Springfield is wider, and possibly that Old Toll Bridge might have beaten the Cornish-Windsor bridge as far as length goes.

It is amazing to thing that some of these bridges can last that long, what with the winters we have.

Mark T. Alamed said...

Excellent post, Jacqueline!

I love that postcard of Vernon Street.


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Mark. Thank heavens for that army of photographers and sketch artists that used to capture these things for sale as postcards. I'm sure they had no idea they were preserving history for us.

sojourner said...

What a fascinating history derived from the study of a single street!
Thank you. I hope you'll tackle some more streets.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Sojourner. I guess even if you narrow your focus to single spot, there's still a story to tell. There are probably a lot of single streets all over New England that could tell us some fascinating stories.

Unknown said...

Hi again, Jacqueline:

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