Longfellow Bridge

Sunday, May 15, 2011 |

It was a great Sunday morning in May for a walk over the Longfellow Bridge, which traverses the Charles River and connects Cambridge with Boston. Now, this is a bridge with character and great views, certainly worth the effort of visiting. If the nearby Harvard Bridge (see earlier post) is for the students, then the Longfellow Bridge is for the more experienced adults among us. The stone and rusty iron bridge has four distinctive stone turrets built on it, giving the bridge the nickname of the "Salt and Pepper Shaker Bridge." The bridge not only carries vehicles (of course) and pedestrians/bikers, but also the red line of the Boston subway system. The group walkBoston couldn't have summed up the experience of trekking across the Longfellow Bridge more accurately: "As a pedestrian on this bridge, you enjoy a sensory feast. Smell the fishy, pungent river. Feel the vibrations of a Red Line train as it rumbles between Boston and Cambridge. Look at one of the best views of the Boston skyline."

The bridge was completed in 1906 and apparently has had little reconstruction work until now. In 2008, after a support beam was found in need of immediate repair, the red line trains were limited to very slow speeds, two of the four traffic lanes were closed, and one of the two sidewalks was closed. Although the immediate repair was made and those restrictions lifted, the bridge is now undergoing extensive rehabilitation. And it is getting a face lift as well, as the bridge is scheduled to have its rust removed and get its first paint job since 1953.

The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who lived during the 19th century, spent the last chunk of his life in Boston and apparently often walked across the prior bridge located at the same location. He wrote a poem about the previous bridge on that site entitled, simply, "The Bridge." And his poem about Paul Revere's ride ("Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere....") is actually painted on a narrow strip on the sidewalk of the Longfellow Bridge.

I don't think a trip to Boston is complete without a trek across the Longfellow. And not a scary bridge walk really, assuming you forget about the disrepair of the structure. I give it a 2 for height, 2 for length at 0.4 miles, and 4 for width (given its wide sidewalks and solid, low chest high railings, though rust ridden), thus a total of 8.

Harvard Bridge

Friday, May 13, 2011 |

A family event in early May in Boston presented a great opportunity to do some Charles River bridge treks. First, it's a Friday afternoon stroll over the Harvard Bridge, often called the Mass Ave Bridge because it carries, of course, Massachusetts Avenue. The bridge, which connects Cambridge and Boston, was built in 1891, but reconstructed in the 1980s to the point of now looking completely different (and apparently now being structurally sound). It is not named after the University, but for Reverend John Harvard, after whom Harvard University is named. There is a college right next to the bridge in Cambridge, but instead of being Harvard, it is MIT, which moved to its current location after the bridge was originally built and named.

The MIT students have clearly claimed the bridge as their own. The bridge length is famously measured in "smoots," with painted markers on the sidewalk every 10 smoot-lengths, thanks to the efforts of a fraternity in 1958. As the story goes, and this story was confirmed to my satisfaction by a relative who graduated from there, the frat took one of its pledges, Oliver Smoot, and rolled him head over heels across the bridge, keeping measure of how many body lengths they had covered. The bridge is marked at 364.4 smoots long, plus or minus one ear, as measured by those mathematically-oriented students who apparently had an appreciation for potential measurement error. Using standard measurements, the bridge is about 0.4 miles long.

School was still in session , and the bridge was very popular with students. Lots of pedestrians and, to a lesser extent, bikes. Nice breezes, nice views out in the middle of the Charles. Certainly worth the trek. I will note that the bridge was very, very low -- I'm estimating about 15 to 20 feet above the water (based on my fine sense and a close assessment of photos showing people walking across where I can see how many body lengths it is down to the water). The railings were just a little above waist level, not very reassuring but we'll cut them a break with the water that close to the roadway. In a great movie scene, you may remember that the Sundance Kid (played by Robert Redford) refused to take a huge leap off a cliff into a river below in order to escape capture because, he finally said, he couldn't swim, to which Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) told him "Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you." Well, Butch would have had to worry about swimming off the Harvard Bridge, given that the fall would be akin to a competitive high dive.

We'll give the bridge a scariness rating of 9, with a 2 for length, 1 for height, and a 6 for the low, open railings, though helped with wide sidewalks.