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.
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.
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
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.
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.