Stay up to date on all the latest news from Boston.com
It has been known by many names in the years that it has spanned the Charles River.
The Cambridge Bridge.
The old West Boston Bridge.
But since 1927, it has been officially known as the Longfellow Bridge, honoring the renowned Cambridge poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Yet, many refer it by another less formal moniker, alluding to its distinctive towers: the salt-and-pepper-shaker bridge.
And what, exactly, is inside those towers? We set out to learn the answer, and along the way discovered that romance, civic pride, and poetry are woven into the structure’s evolution through the years.
The bridge, then known as the old West Boston Bridge, was originally constructed in 1793 (and rebuilt in 1854) and was the first fixed bridge across the Charles River in the region’s history, according to MassDOT Administrator Jonathan Gulliver and the National Parks Service.
For close to 100 years, the Charles River was under the purview of the War Department because of the waterway’s strategic importance. The Boston armory was moved to Watertown to be farther away from the bridge in the Charles River Basin, and all other bridges across the river were, at one point, drawbridges.
“Officials worked really hard to get the waiver and actually get the legislation changed so that it did not have to be a drawbridge,” Gulliver said.
It was during this first period of the bridge’s history that Longfellow trekked across the bridge from his home in Cambridge to Beacon Hill once a week (an hour-and-a-half walk) for the purpose of courting Fanny Appleton, who he married in 1843. He wrote a poem about the bridge (titled “The Bridge”), reflecting on the many “care-encumbered men” who crossed before him and contemplating the moon’s reflection in the river. (According to the National Park Service, Appleton did not immediately return the poet’s interest, but she ultimately experienced “a change of mind and heart after several years.”)
Today, on the Boston side of the bridge, low stone walls have quotes from Longfellow’s poem etched into them, and when MassDOT built the adjacent pedestrian bridge linking Charles Circle to the Esplanade, it was named for Fanny Appleton.
When the decision was made to rebuild the bridge in the late 1800s, the cities of Cambridge and Boston sent the chief engineer and architect for the project to Europe to gather inspiration for the new design.
This was during the City Beautiful movement, when there was an emphasis on civic pride and the aesthetics of infrastructure, according to Stacey Donahoe, MassDOT’s culture resources coordinator for major projects.
“The towers were part of that,” she said.
The new bridge, complete with its iconic towers, was finished in 1907. The spires featured (and still do) distinctive carvings: the seals of Boston and Cambridge, prows of Viking ships, and sea creatures. According to Donahue, the Viking motif was in vogue at the time but there was also a small movement of people in the region who believed that Leif Erikson had landed in Boston and may have wanted to commemorate that connection.
Officials wanted to name the new bridge for Longfellow from the beginning, but Donahoe said at the request of his family and “their modesty,” they did not immediately do so, waiting until about 20 years after work was completed to formally dedicate the steel arch bridge to the poet.
The 1907 opening was attended by thousands of people, and images of the bridge were soon used on postcards in the ensuing years.
“It was a really big event,” Donahoe said. “And I think it’s continued to be significant, not only architecturally, but as a symbol of the city.”
Not many steel arch bridges were built in Massachusetts, according to Donahoe. The Longfellow is significant for that reason, but also for its ornamental features and neoclassical design.
It’s been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978.
“It’s a very, very important piece of infrastructure for the region, both in terms of what it serves but also just being such a really beautiful focal point for the Charles River,” Gulliver said.
Donahoe said an “exceptional amount of care” was put into the bridge’s 1907 construction.
According to the MassDOT officials, when the Longfellow Bridge underwent its major rehabilitation project starting in 2013, the vast majority of the original elements were maintained or reconstructed from photographs and historical drawings.
“A bridge like that is very difficult to build today,” Gulliver said. “We wouldn’t build a bridge like that today, and it was even more difficult back when it was built. So they put a lot of effort into ensuring that it would be an iconic bridge that stood the test of time.”
Need an example? It still has its original foundation made of wood piles (don’t worry, they’ve been structurally tested).
Nothing; they’re empty.
“Other than stairs that are in there for inspection purposes and sand on the bottom, basically there is nothing in them,” Gulliver said. “They are purely there for decorative purposes.”
It appears they’ve always been empty and inaccessible to the public.
Donahoe said that the original towers contained spiral staircases, and a 1909 bridge commission report indicated they also had a little closet and room “for the use of the men who sweep and take care of the bridge.”
“It really was an area meant for the staff and not for the public,” she said.
Wickedpedia: Your unserious questions, seriously answered. Have a question about Greater Boston or New England you’ve always wondered about but never thought to ask? Boston.com’s new Wickedpedia series aims to track down the answers to these long-burning (often random) reader questions — the more obscure the better. Submit your question below or email it to [email protected], and if it’s selected, we’ll put a reporter on the case.
Sorry. This form is no longer available.
Stay up to date on all the latest news from Boston.com
Stay up to date with everything Boston. Receive the latest news and breaking updates, straight from our newsroom to your inbox.
This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com