After more than 100 years over Merrimack River, Boscawen-Canterbury Bridge pegged for demolition

Last modified: 3/7/2014 12:48:36 AM
The chain-link fence at its entrance, the overgrown bushes and the faded no trespassing signs posted on the Boscawen-Canterbury Bridge make it pretty clear: The historic structure hasn’t received much attention lately.

Built over the Merrimack River in 1907, the bridge connecting the two towns was closed to traffic in 1965.

On Tuesday, voters in Canterbury and Boscawen will decide whether to demolish the historic, yet crumbling, bridge after decades of discussions about its future.

Designed by famed New Hampshire engineer and former Concord mayor John Storrs, the 347-foot bridge connects Depot Street in Boscawen and West Road in Canterbury, and it played an important role in development and transportation history in both towns. Its future has been in question since 1958, when selectmen in both towns deemed the bridge unsafe and closed it.

Finding reuses for the bridge while recognizing its historic significance have been at the heart of discussions.

In 1995, the towns sought a state Department of Transportation opinion regarding the

potential rehabilitation of the bridge. An engineering study in 2009 concluded removal was the only feasible option for one of the state’s last remaining Parker truss bridges.

“In the case of the Boscawen-Canterbury Bridge, unfortunately, due to its steep level of decline, there’s just no way to rehabilitate it,” said Elizabeth Muzzey, director of the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources. “It would basically be a total replacement.”

Seen as a liability

The bridge’s safety and liability issues have pushed the demolition process forward.

In the summer, it is a popular – and illegal – launching spot for swimmers jumping into the river. The town also has had issues with metal being stolen for scrap.

“If we don’t take it down, it could fall into the river. The towns’ liability will only get worse,” said Robert Steenson, Canterbury selectmen chairman.

“When you look at the deterioration of the bridge, you can see the issues,” said Alan Hardy, land use coordinator in Boscawen.

If voters approve the work, the towns would then solicit proposals with the hope of going out to bid by next winter.

“The challenge we’re up against is that we get a better price if we can do it during the winter,” said Hardy. “If we put out the bid to have it taken down in June, the price would be radically different.”

Taxpayers should compare the cost of the proposed removal with the cost of removing the bridge from the river if it collapses, said Craig Saltmarsh, of the Boscawen selectmen chairman. In that situation, the towns would likely need to pay to remove pollutants from the bridge that ended up in the river.

“Obviously, we want to do this as cost-effectively as possible,” Saltmarsh said.

Officials said demolishing the bridge won’t erase its history.

The towns and the Division of Historical Resources have a tentative agreement to spruce up the area near the bridge and install interpretive signs or information kiosks with the bridge’s history.

“That will be the living legacy of the bridge once it is gone,” Hardy said.

Removing the bridge will cost about $400,000. In Canterbury, voters will be asked to approve their share, $175,000. Boscawen residents will consider a $200,000 warrant article, and in both towns, the state Department of Transportation will reimburse $160,000 of the cost of bridge removal.

What happens to the bridge if voters don’t approve the appropriations hasn’t been determined.

Boscawen’s warrant says no funds will be spent unless Canterbury appropriates its share.

“No approval on their part keeps us from moving forward as well,” Hardy said in an email.

Canterbury’s warrant does not have the same caveat, and Steenson said the town would review all of its options if the appropriation is voted down.

“I think that’s pretty unlikely, though,” he said.

The history

The trade-off for safety and less liability is the loss of one of only a few remaining Parker truss bridges built before 1915. The American Bridge Co. of New York built it on the site of an 18th-century ferry crossing and a series of 19th-century wood bridges. The bridge rests on stone abutments installed in 1857 for a covered wooden bridge.

The Parker truss bridge design was popular in the first half of the 20th century for longer-spanned, higher capacity highway bridges. “There very much was a tradition of these bridges crossing the Merrimack River,” Muzzey said. “At one time we had a lot of these metal truss bridges in New Hampshire, but those numbers have been rapidly declining.”

Storrs was the state’s pre-eminent bridge designer, responsible for the design of more than 40 metal truss bridges between 1906 and 1926. The Sewalls Falls Bridge in Concord is the only remaining bridge of a group of four truss bridges built in Concord in 1915 as part of a series of major highway modernization efforts.

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or


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