The Choate Bridge in Ipswich was constructed in 1764 and is the oldest documented surviving double stone arch bridge in North America. As part of Rt. 1A and Rt. 133 the Choate Bridge is estimated to carry between 10,000 and 20,000 vehicles each day! The town approved construction of the stone bridge on April 18, 1764. The town voted on September 10, 1764 to add 3′ high stone wall guards, which can be clearly seen in the photographs.

The Choate Bridge in Ipswich

In 1645 a wooden cart bridge was built where the river curves around the massive granite underlying Town Hill. This made possible the extension of Main Street to the South Green, and there has been a bridge at this location ever since. By 1764 the cart bridge was far too narrow for the steady traffic across the river, and a new one twenty feet wide was planned by the town. The total cost of its construction was £996. Col. John Choate, who designed and oversaw the construction of the bridge, refused compensation.

Colonel John Choate, a noted resident who had led a regiment at Louisburg and who served as a representative to the General Court designed the bridge and supervised construction at no charge to the town. The bridge is supported by two elliptical arches each spanning 30 ft. and constructed of random-coursed granite ashlar blocks. Col. Choate also served as Justice of the Court of Sessions and the Court of Common Pleas. He was absent from his judicial seat during construction of the bridge, returning on October 26, 1764.

This inscription is on southwest side of the bridge, close to the first building on South Main Street
This inscription is on southwest side of the bridge, close to the first building on South Main Street

In 1764 a blind man from Rowley named Mr. Clark recited a poem during the construction of the Choate Bridge, in the presence of Col. Choate. The bridge was not yet opened because the walls had not been finished, but it was already passable  The poem was heard by a 12-year-old boy named Nathaniel Dutch (grandson of Benjamin Dutch) who happened to be standing nearby. He remembered it throughout his life and repeated the poem from memory in 1831, at which time it was recorded on paper:

choate_sign
Crossing the Choate Bridge into downtown Ipswich

Behold this Bridge of lime and stone
The like before was never known
For beauty and magnificence
Considering the small expense
How it excels what was expected
Upon the day it was projected
When faithful men are put in trust
They’ll not let all the money rust
But some advance for public good
Is by this fabric understood
And after this it will be wrote
In honor of brave Colonel Choate
It was his wisdom built the same
And added lustre to his fame
That filled this County with renown
And did with honor Ipswich crown

There is an old tale that Col. Choate’s horse was tethered nearby, when the wooden arch forms were removed, so that he might mount and ride if the popular belief that the bridge would not stand was realized, but Thomas Franklin Waters wrote that “even a suspicion of such a casualty is a libel on the intelligence of our highly cultured Town.” After the colonel’s death, the Court ordered in Sept. 1792, that the word “Choate” be engraved before the word Bridge on the cornerstone of the bridge.

This photo from the turn of the 20th Century shows the trolley tracks. The house on the left was moved to the Wendell estate on Jeffreys Neck Road.
View of the Choate Bridge from downstream, published during the Celebration of the 250th Anniversary of Ipswich
View of the Choate Bridge from downstream, published during the Celebration of the 250th Anniversary of Ipswich
This photo is on the cover of the book “Ipswich by William Varrell
choate_bridge_1940
Choate Bridge, 1940

The Choate Bridge measured 20 feet 6 inches wide when it was built. The town and county initiated plans for widening the Choate Bridge in 1834, but contentions arose regarding the location of the expansion, and the expense of the project. The town petitioned the legislature in March, 1837, to be not held liable for any part of the cost of the bridge which was over the tide-water, but the petition failed and the Town of Ipswich was ordered to allow construction to proceed. The town was assessed $1037.50 for its share of the work, ending the decade-long “battle of the Stone Bridge” and the bridge was widened to 35 feet 6 inches on the east side. Major restoration work was done in 1989, and additional base support work was necessitated after the “Mothers Day Storm” of 2006, which the bridge weathered admirably.

Just upstream is the Ipswich Mills Dam, and tidal flow makes the water brackish up to that location. Great shoals of alewives once swam upstream in the spring, and were netted at night by the light of torches placed under the bridge. The privilege was sold at auction each year to the highest bidder. Lamps were hung under the bridge in the evening, and as the fish passed underneath the bridge they were scooped up by the hundreds.

The American Society of Civil Engineers cites the Choate Bridge as the oldest documented two-span masonry arch bridge, and the oldest extant bridge in Massachusetts. The Choate Bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

CHOATE BRIDGE, IPSWICH, St 1A, S. Main St./Ipswich River, MassDOT Bridge Dept. No. I-01-002

FACT SHEET 6/2/2015

The original portion of the bridge, built in 1764, is the westerly (upstream) half. The arch ring stones of this original section are the smaller, roughly squared stones, originally set in a lime/sand mortar, much of which remained between the arch ring stones as late as 1988, when the mortar was analyzed by William Finch of Preservation Technology Associates, Inc. for the Town of Ipswich. This mortar was found as deep as 12” into the beds of the arch ring stones, and as much as 6” deep in joints as narrow as ¼”, leading Mr. Finch to presume that this rather coarse mortar could only have been placed there during the original construction.

While the specific source of the stone used for the original arch rings has not been discovered, the presumption would be that the Choate’s builders located a nearby ledge or outcropping, or a field of boulders of a suitable stone, and then split and dressed the blocks with hand tools to their roughly squared final form. Farmers of that time could have used the same techniques, if they were willing to expend the time and energy to dress the stones, but most farmers were satisfied to use field stones and roughly split surface rubble (similar to the stonework of the Choate’s spandrel walls – the vertical outer walls over the arches) for their stone walls.

The added portion of the bridge, built in 1838 (the petitions, meetings, and paperwork started in 1834, but not the construction) is the easterly (downstream) half. This portion of the bridge was constructed of much larger blocks of drilled-and-split stone, undoubtedly produced by a commercial sub-surface quarry operation. These 1838 arch rings were originally laid dry.

I have found no clear evidence as to whether the cutwater on the upstream nose of the Choate’s pier is part of the original 1764 construction. Cutwaters (to protect a pier from ice, logs, and raging currents) were certainly built in the eighteenth century, and the cutwater on the Choate appears in a ca. 1910-20 photograph (at Historic New England, Inc.) so it’s definitely not a modern alteration.

 From documentary information in MassDOT’s Historic Bridge Inventory files, and personal inspection by S.J. Roper, MassDOT Historic Resources Supervisor.

The 1967 Memorial Day parade. Members of the Ipswich Women's Relief Corps cast wreaths of flowers into the Ipswich River in remembrance.
The 1967 Memorial Day parade. Members of the Ipswich Women’s Relief Corps cast wreaths of flowers into the Ipswich River in remembrance.

Photos of the bridge from the Library of Congress














Plaque awarded by the American Society of Civil Engineers to the Choate Bridge.
Plaque awarded by the American Society of Civil Engineers to the Choate Bridge.

choate_bridge_poster

CHOATE BRIDGE FACT SHEET

MassDOT Bridge Dept. No. I-01-002, 6/2/2015

From documentary information in MassDOT’s Historic Bridge Inventory files, and personal inspection by S.J. Roper, MassDOT Historic Resources Supervisor.

The original portion of the bridge, built in 1764, is the westerly (upstream) half. The arch ring stones of this original section are the smaller, roughly squared stones, originally set in a lime/sand mortar, much of which remained between the arch ring stones as late as 1988, when the mortar was analyzed by William Finch of Preservation Technology Associates, Inc. for the Town of Ipswich. This mortar was found as deep as 12” into the beds of the arch ring stones, and as much as 6” deep in joints as narrow as ¼”, leading Mr. Finch to presume that this rather coarse mortar could only have been placed there during the original construction.

While the specific source of the stone used for the original arch rings has not been discovered, the presumption would be that the Choate’s builders located a nearby ledge or outcropping, or a field of boulders of a suitable stone, and then split and dressed the blocks with hand tools to their roughly squared final form. Farmers of that time could have used the same techniques, if they were willing to expend the time and energy to dress the stones, but most farmers were satisfied to use field stones and roughly split surface rubble (similar to the stonework of the Choate’s spandrel walls – the vertical outer walls over the arches) for their stone walls.

The added portion of the bridge, built in 1838 (the petitions, meetings, and paperwork started in 1834, but not the construction) is the easterly (downstream) half. This portion of the bridge was constructed of much larger blocks of drilled-and-split stone, undoubtedly produced by a commercial sub-surface quarry operation. These 1838 arch rings were originally laid dry.

I have found no clear evidence as to whether the cutwater on the upstream nose of the Choate’s pier is part of the original 1764 construction. Cutwaters (to protect a pier from ice, logs, and raging currents) were certainly built in the eighteenth century, and the cutwater on the Choate appears in a ca. 1910-20 photograph (at Historic New England, Inc.) so it’s definitely not a modern alteration.

One thought on “The Choate Bridge, a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark

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