The American Society of Civil Engineers cites the Choate Bridge in Ipswich 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.
The Choate Bridge 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 first settlers of Ipswich forded the river near the present-day dam, just as native Americans had done for millennia. In 1638 the General Court ordered that the Bay Road would be laid out from Boston to Portsmouth, to be constructed by each town along the way. Distances on the Bay Road were marked with stone pillars. The stone that marks 25 miles from Boston can be seen along Rt. 1A in front of Appleton Farms. 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.
South Main St. remained unoccupied until 1693, when several businessmen petitioned “to have liberty granted them to build shops upon ye bank by ye river side.” The Selectmen laid out and granted 23 small lots, extending to “ye low water mark.” They stipulated that buildings not encumber the road, that the owners “provide paving four foot wide all along before ye said buildings for the convenience of foot travelers,” and that they must erect posts to keep horses from “spoiling the same.”
Construction of the Choate Bridge
The wooden cart bridge frequently fell victim to floods and rot, and was rebuilt several times. By 1764, it was deemed to be too narrow by six or eight feet, and a new one twenty feet wide was planned by the Town. The County agree to bear half the expense. and the Choate Bridge was built forthwith at a total cost of £996.
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. 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.
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:
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
Donald Curiale, former chair of the Ipswich Historical Commission provided the history of this sign:
“My spouse and I traveled through the UK in 89s and 90s. We fell in love with small villages in East Angelia. And we fell in love with signs as you entered the villages. It was Rye that gave us the inspiration for the present Choate Bridge sign. Around 1995, I went to a welder in Rowley on Rt 1 with a sketch of the sign. The price was high, but he was kind enough to lower it as his donation to Ipswich. Now I had to pay for the sign! Nat Pulsifer helped, and we started a Mary Conley Fund. Arthur finkelstein and Nat Pulsifer were its chief contributors. And with this Fund we also started the Mary Conley Award, dedicated to voluntary renovations of historic Ipswich homes. The sign was installed by the generosity of IPW director Armand Marchand. My worker and I painted it, but it needs a fresh coat of paint now. I really see it as a dedication to Mary Conley. It was the same period of time when the Historical Commission completed repairs of the Choate Bridge. It was the right moment and time for a village sign.”
The bridge is supported by two elliptical arches each spanning 30 ft. and constructed of random-coursed granite ashlar blocks. 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.
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.
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 Choate Bridge was listed in Massachusetts as an Archaeological/Historic Landmark on April 1, 1966. On the same date a preservation restriction was established with Mass Historic. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
Historic American Engineering Record (HAER)
The following photos of the bridge were taken in 1934 by Arthur C. Haskell and are featured in the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) at the Library of Congress.
The photos below are from the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) at the Library of Congress, taken in 1981 for the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) established in 1969 by the National Park Service, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Library of Congress to document historic sites and structures related to engineering and industry. HAER works with (HABS) the program after which it was modeled, and documents how bridge components fit together, with measured and interpretive drawings, and a report that indicates the site’s significance.
Field measurements were taken by Frederick H. Bond of Boxford.
More photos and additional information:
Along the Ipswich River: Historic photos of the Ipswich River from original glass negatives taken by early Ipswich photographers Arthur Wesley Dow, George Dexter and Edward L. Darling.
The Ipswich River: The 35-mile Ipswich River flows into the Atlantic Ocean at Ipswich Bay. The Ipswich River Water Association works to protect the river and its watershed. Foote Brothers Canoes on Topsfield Rd provides rentals and shuttle service from April to October.
The Industrial History of the Ipswich River: The Industrial History of the Ipswich River was produced for the Ipswich 375th Anniversary by John Stump, volunteer for the Ipswich Museum, and Alan Pearsall, who produced the Ipswich Mural with funding from EBSCO.
The Old Town Landings and Wharfs: Many a pleasant sail down the river are in the memories of William J. Barton. “These were the names of the places and flats along the Ipswich River before my time, and familiar to me during my time. They were used by the fishermen and clammers. I know. I was one of them. It was the happiest time of my life.”
When Herring Were Caught by Torchlight: In the late 19th Century, most of the men around the river would look forward to “herringing” when fall arrived. The foot of Summer Street was the best landing. One year so many herring were caught, they were dumped in the Parker River, and Herring did not return for many years.
County Street, Sawmill Point, and bare hills: The town voted in 1861 to build County Street and its stone arch bridge, connecting Cross and Mill Streets. A Woolen mill, saw mill, blacksmith shop and veneer mill operated near the bridge.
The Town Wharf: The Ipswich Town Landing is one of several locations along the River where wharves were located over the centuries.
Diamond Stage: In 1673, two fishermen from the Isles of Shoals, Andrew Diamond and Harry Maine, arrived together in Ipswich. Mr. Diamond built a platform for salting and shipping fish, and became quite successful. The location is still known today as Diamond Stage.
Water Street: In the book, Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Volume I, Thomas Franklin Waters recorded the history of Water Street, which is part of an early public right-of-way that extended from the wharf to the Green Street Bridge, then cotinued along the Sidney Shurcliff Riverwalk to County St.