Saying goodbye to the Sewalls Falls Bridge after 100 years together

Span linked ‘Insider’ to the outside world

The current view of the Sewalls Falls Bridge from the north side, aka the Monitor/Insider side. Watch your step! That first one's a doozy. (JON BODELL / Insider staff) -
The current view of the Sewalls Falls Bridge from the north side, aka the Monitor/Insider side. Watch your step! That first one's a doozy. (JON BODELL / Insider staff)
If you were scared to cross the Sewalls Falls Bridge before, try driving over it now. (But don't really try, that would be bad). (JON BODELL / Insider staff) -
If you were scared to cross the Sewalls Falls Bridge before, try driving over it now. (But don't really try, that would be bad). (JON BODELL / Insider staff)
Joe Symonds with E.D. Swett welds part of a cap that will go on a trestle of the new bridge. (JON BODELL / Insider staff) -
Joe Symonds with E.D. Swett welds part of a cap that will go on a trestle of the new bridge. (JON BODELL / Insider staff)
Chip Tibbetts (left) and Lon Collins of E.D. Swett do some form work for the new bridge. (JON BODELL / Insider staff) -
Chip Tibbetts (left) and Lon Collins of E.D. Swett do some form work for the new bridge. (JON BODELL / Insider staff)
Here's what the south side of the bridge looks like right now. Looks like it'd be pretty hard to drive your car up there. (JON BODELL / Insider staff) -
Here's what the south side of the bridge looks like right now. Looks like it'd be pretty hard to drive your car up there. (JON BODELL / Insider staff)
The temporary work platform next to the bridge is almost done, City Engineer Ed Roberge said. (JON BODELL / Insider staff) -
The temporary work platform next to the bridge is almost done, City Engineer Ed Roberge said. (JON BODELL / Insider staff)
A rendering of what the new Sewalls Falls Bridge will look like. (Courtesy of SewallsFallsBridge.com) -
A rendering of what the new Sewalls Falls Bridge will look like. (Courtesy of SewallsFallsBridge.com)

If you’ve been to the Insider’s neck of the woods lately, you’ve probably noticed that it hasn’t been the easiest part of town to get around since the end of last year.

Not because East Concord is the epicenter of the traffic universe, but because the 100-year-old Sewalls Falls Bridge has been out of commission.

The 660-foot steel bridge that was built in the summer of 1915 saw its last commuter Nov. 31, 2014, and it’s made getting from work to Fisherville Road and all its fine eateries a nightmare.

The one-lane, rusty span over the Merrimack River that once supported 3,400 vehicles a day (according to a 1994 report) before load capacity downgrades – about five in total – chipped away at the traffic was deemed structurally deficient and substandard and is now in the process of being torn down.

If you had been enjoying the bridge by foot since its closure to traffic, those days are over, too, as the driving/walking surface is being removed piece by piece. We wouldn’t recommend trying to cross in any fashion at this point.

Since construction/demolition began in September, a lot of the work has been focused on building a temporary working platform parallel to the bridge, so that the workers don’t have to don 80-foot stilts and stand in the middle of the river to work.

“Since we started working in September, that’s what’s been going on, one frame section at a time,” said City Engineer Ed Roberge. And since the crews have been plugging away at that platform since the beginning, it’s almost done. Roberge said that by the end of the week, the platform will probably be complete.

He added that so far, everything has gone smoothly – well, almost everything.

“The only thing we found that we initiated a couple change orders on is, we found some old drain pipe that was in worse condition than we anticipated,” he said. “We ended up replacing some old clay pipe that’s going to be underneath the old fill embankment. . . . We were concerned that if we put this on top of that old pipe it would break, so we’re replacing that with reinforced concrete pipe.”

The project has used about 25 percent of its budget, which is about $11 million including design and construction. A federal grant will pay for about 80 percent of the project, with Concord covering about 20 percent.

“We’re right on budget,” Roberge said.

The next phase will be the full-on removal of the bridge, piece by piece. As early as the week of Dec. 14, crews will start taking the old truss off, one section at a time.

“The cranes will get themselves into position and they’ll pick that off in 60- to 65-foot sections at a time,” Roberge said. “We have to make sure that it doesn’t drop into the river.”

Over the course of the month, the bridge will steadily disappear. And that’s right, work will continue straight through the winter – “We want to stay on schedule,” Roberge said.

By late spring or early summer, pieces of the new bridge will start going in. New steel has already been ordered and it’s expected by June 1.

“We hope to start hanging that on June 1,” Roberge said.

When all is said and done, the new bridge should be open to traffic Oct. 31, 2016, assuming everything stays on schedule.

When the bridge does open, it will be significantly different – and in many ways better – than the old bridge.

For starters, there will be two lanes of traffic, so no more waving the other driver over from 300 some-odd feet away (even though Roberge said the practice earned the bridge the nickname “The most courteous bridge in the world”). There will also be concrete sidewalks, a paved driving surface and shoulder lanes for bicyclists.

And, it will be able to hold more than one vehicle at a time, which is nice. In fact, the new bridge – of which there has been no mention of naming yet – will have a load capacity of 45 tons. That should hold a couple Escalades and Suburbans for sure.

The new bridge will feature three spans sitting on two piers, an upgrade from the previous two spans over one pier. And the sidewalks bump out right above those piers so pedestrians can stop and take in the view if they want to. The sidewalk will also lead right into the Sewalls Falls Recreation Area, so you can take a walk through the trails and keep on walking past the parking lot and go straight up Sewalls Falls Road without having to go in the street.

The bridge will also look quite different. Most notably, there will be nothing overhead as you drive across. The road will have guard rails on either side, but no network of metal beams shooting dozens of feet into the sky. A rendering of what the new bridge will look like is available on the project’s aptly named website, sewallsfallsbridge.com (you can also see a black-and-white version of it on page 15). The website also contains many other resources such as a detailed timeline, schedule, overview and photo gallery.

Although the actual physical work on the bridge just began in September, the project was first conceived in 1990.

“The project originally started as a replacement project,” Roberge said. Once the plans started to come together more and more over the next few years, the city began holding public meetings on the project.

“When the project was presented, there was a lot of concern from the community,” Roberge said. “Do we really want to do this? This is a historic bridge.”

After that, ideas of saving the bridge began to gain traction. In 2009, the Concord City Council endorsed a plan to save the bridge, and in 2010 the state Department of Transportation handed the project off to the city and the city ordered a structural evaluation.

“What came of that is that nearly 80 percent of the steel on the existing truss bridge would need to be replaced or modified in some fashion,” Roberge said. “We said wait, this would be extremely expensive. It would have been more than $15 million and we’d have two one-way bridges for the final project.”

So it was back to the drawing board.

“In the end, because of the condition of the steel truss bridge that was in really poor condition, it didn’t make sense to try to maintain it,” Roberge said. “We reported to the city council and they opted to return to the replacement project.”

We’ll miss you, Sewalls Falls Bridge. Thanks for the last 100 years. Here’s to hoping for 100 more in your next life.

Author: Jon Bodell

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