Longfellow Bridge in Boston: Construction & History

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we explore the history, construction, and restoration of the Longfellow Bridge that connects the cities of Boston, Massachusetts and Cambridge, Massachusetts across the Charles River.

Named for a Love Poem

''I stood on the bridge at midnight,
As the clocks were striking the hour,
And the moon rose o'er the city,
Behind the dark church-tower.''

These lines from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1845 famous poem The Bridge, describe a moment of his frequent journey across the Cambridge Bridge separating his home from that of his future wife, Fanny Appleton.

These words are part of a proclamation of love unrequited (unreturned), for seven years until Fanny accepted his proposal of marriage. Little did Longfellow know that they would be forever immortalized in naming one of Boston's greatest landmarks, a grand replacement for his famous walkway, long fallen into disrepair.

Through an act of the Massachusetts legislature in 1927, the Cambridge Bridge, also called the West Boston Bridge, gained its final and official name as the Longfellow Bridge.

Panoramic view of the Longfellow Bridge
Panoramic View of the Longfellow Bridge


In 1898, the mayors of the cities of Cambridge and Boston in Massachusetts formed the Cambridge Bridge Commission. Dr. Erasmus D. Leavitt Jr. was to design and build a replacement for the wooden bridge, which could no longer support the volume of traffic and introduction of street cars.

Chief Engineer William Jackson and Consulting Architect Edmund M. Wheelwright surveyed numerous landmark bridges in Europe with the intent to design a lasting structure that could serve the needs of a growing metropolis. But they also wanted it to have aesthetic grandeur, fitting for a future landmark and with the additional plans for the Charles River waterfront revitalization.

Construction of bridge arches
Longfellow Construction


The resulting design called for a bridge of stone and steel measuring 105 feet wide stretching over 1700 feet between abutments on the Cambridge side and the Boston side of the Charles River.

Employing 11 steel arches between 10 stone piers and the two abutments, the bridge also featured several towers on the abutments, central piers, with a central, larger tower rising above the fifth and sixth piers. These larger towers rose 40 feet above the roadway and contained iron, spiral stairs down to a granite tunnel for pedestrian crossing.

The shape of these towers inspired the local nickname of the 'Salt and Pepper' bridge for their resemblance to tabletop shakers. The center of the bridge housed two sets of tracks for the Boston Elevated train while the inner edge of the roadway provided space for the newly-introduced electric streetcars.

Finally, providing illumination for travelers, builders installed over a hundred cast-iron gas lamps and the necessary gas lines to fuel them. Completion of the project and the bridge dedication occurred on July 31, 1907, seven years after the work began.

Contemporary Restoration

By the late 1970s, local officials knew the bridge required significant repairs. However, the department of transportation could only afford small repairs until the state established a bridge repair fund of $3 billion to restore several decaying bridges.

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