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.