The Story of the Robinson Bridge (Robinson Project, Part 1)

There are plenty of closed and abandoned bridges in Northern New York, its not an uncommon sight to see them as you drive the local highways. Since the (caucasian) settlement of the Saint Lawrence River Valley in the very early 1800s, places have come and go and populations have shifted with the changes of the world.  Most of these bridges share the same general quality. Built in the early 20th century by various long gone bridge contracting companies, most of them a box truss design as they were the easiest and cheapest means of bridging a river, and many of them a green color used by New York State in the mid-20th century to make the bridges more invisible against our natural backdrop. All of these bridges have their own personal history, but only one stands out as a bridge of more importance due to its unique design choices and the man who designed and built it.

The Massena Center Bridge (or Robinson’s Bridge) is a 600+ foot suspension bridge located in the heart of Massena Center, a hamlet located roughly 3 miles east of the Village of Massena in the Town of Massena.  It was built in 1910 for the cost of $39,990 by Holton Duncan Robinson. It crosses the Grasse River and connects with the former Massena – Rooseveltown Highway (Highland Road, Trippany Road, Route 37B).

The argument for a bridge to be built by the taxpayers of Massena began in 1833 after the first and only attempt to bridge the lower Grasse River failed.  In the Summer of 1832 a bridge was built somewhere near Massena Center.  It was a simple wooden structure, very little is known about it.  What is known is that the Spring Thaw of 1833 destroyed the bridge.  Before the rivers were tamed by mankind, the Saint Lawrence River was known to create ice dams in the vicinity of Saint Regis.  Much like an ice jam, these dams were formed of the broken river surface ice flowing out in the thaw, but while ice jams typically still have current flowing under them, ice dams would reach the riverbed and create a temporary barrier against the current.  This occurred frequently around the area of Saint Regis due to the shallow swampy marshes around the islands and river banks, and the outflow of the three local rivers, the St. Regis, the Raquette, and the Grasse.  When a dam formed it could cause the Saint Lawrence and smaller rivers to backup and flood 5 to 15 feet in the matter of minutes.  It was said the mighty and raging Long Sault Rapids on the Saint Lawrence could be reduced to the calmness of a mill pond.  The bridge at The Center in 1833 was lifted off its piers and torn apart by the water and ice of one of these floods.

In the 1850s the Citizens of the Massena Center District requested that the Town of Massena build a bridge at Massena Center.  The request was denied, stating that it was too costly to build a bridge in the area, and that efforts should be concentrated on the Downtown Bridge that was immune to the flooding.  While denied the argument would rage on for the next 40 years, until an official resolution for $10,000 to build a bridge was put forth by then Town Supervisor Michael Flaherty in 1892.  His argument for building the bridge had been the argument of the people of the Massena Center District which included Massena Point, Robinson’s Bay and Barnhart Island.  For an individual to travel east out of the town towards Malone and points past, one from the district would have to travel up to 13 miles to reach the bridge in the hamlet of Raquette River, due to having to travel west to the Downtown Bridge and back east to the hamlet, which was actually only located 2 miles southeast of Massena Center but cut off by the Grasse River.  The ‘Letter To The Editors’ section of the paper flared up as the citizens began to argue for and against the bridge.  To quote one letter when someone called building the bridge a nuisance:

If you will give us a bridge for ten years, we will, at your request help you to vote against any more bridges in town.  How long shall we be deprived of equal rights?  We beseech you, taxpayers, to give us a bridge, for we have been, like the Israelites of old, in bitterness and in the wilderness, and worse still, a ‘nuisance’. – GFB 02/08/1893

The argument came to a boil in January of 1893.  During this era of the Massena Town Hall, the positions of the Town Councilmen and Town Supervisor were voted on yearly, along with all proposals and resolutions.  Because of this the January newspapers are filled with political arguments about what should be done with the town.  The year began with excitement due to the gossiping of the town and the actions of Jeremiah O’Neill.  A farmer in Massena Center, he had sighted and plotted a road across his property and to the river.  The citizens mistook this as official and un-voted action by the Town Council, while it was O’Neill’s own private doings.  He published a letter on January 11th 1893 declaring that this was not official work, and proceeded to offer to build a bridge for the Town himself.

Somewhere a Citizen stated that a bridge 400 feet long could not be built for $10,000 and still be useful.  Supervisor Flaherty published a letter with the findings of the Groton Bridge Company, which had been contacted about designing and building the bridge.  The company proposed a bridge that could be built for $10,000 in complete detail in a letter by N. H. Denison.  A week letter another letter was published about the proposed Groton built bridge, and pointed to the fact that the cost of the bridge was just for the bridge itself, and not the approach roads and other construction costs.

The February 1893 ballots were cast and the end result was the people of Massena voted no for a $10,000 bridge.  The argument remained quiet for twenty more years.

07/29/1909

In 1909 then Town Supervisor Barney O’Neill made his own proposal to build a bridge at Massena Center, this time with the price tag of $30,000. The landscape of Massena had changed over the past twenty years, namely the construction of the Massena Power Canal, the establishment of the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) and the construction of ‘The Pine Grove’ neighborhood, west of the canal and new plant.  It was also the dawning of the automobile and the formation and organization of County Highways in the region.  With the influx of workers, especially travelling into the town from the East along with the new barrier of the canal, the proposal was voted on and approved by the Town Council on July 29th, 1909.

Holton Duncan Robinson

Word of the approved project reached the ears of Holton Duncan Robinson of New York City, thanks to his brother Joseph.  Holton was born in 1863 in Massena Center to Ichabod Harvey and Isabelle McLeod Robinson, and was the grandson of Daniel Robinson, one of Massena’s earliest pioneers.  He grew up on the Robinson Tract in Massena Center, located on the southern banks of the Saint Lawrence near Robinson’s Bay.  He attended Saint Lawrence University and graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Science.  Afterwards he became a bridge engineer apprentice under Leffert Buck and began building a career as a bridge builder.  Buck, a native born of Canton, New York had already crafted a career as a bridge engineer, and together the two would build the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City.  The bridge was designed by Leffert Buck, with Holton as the Assistant Engineer on the project.  Afterwards Holton would join the Glyndon Contracting Company becoming their Chief Engineer, and invent the 21 inch cables used on the Manhattan Bridge of New York City.

Holton frequently returned to the North County to visit friends and family in Massena Center, attending functions at his Alma mater, SLU, and even sometimes do bridge inspections for the local towns.  Being a native of Massena Center and probable friends with Barney O’Neill, another native of Massena Center (and the son of Jeremiah O’Neill), well knowing the ‘bridge arguments’ that took place, volunteered his time to design a suitable bridge for the Town.

The end result was the proposal of a 600 foot suspension bridge built in a location of his choosing.  To build such a structure would require an extra $10,000 to $15,000 more over the original proposed $30,000 put forth by Supervisor O’Neill.  After a month of discussion and heavy support from the citizens of the Massena Center District and the Aluminum Company of America, a special meeting was held in April and the Town Council approved the construction of the bridge for $40,000.  Like any public works project, construction of the bridge was placed up for bidding by local contracting companies.

The town received two bids for the project. The first came from John Roebling & Sons Company for the full $40,000 but included several changes to the design. The company was known for its founder John Roebling who was the designer and builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the company founded by his sons would go on to build the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the George Washington Bridge in New York City.

The second and winning bid for the bridge came from Holton Robinson himself who placed a bid for $39,990. The contract was approved on July 20th 1910 and construction began almost immediately. The concrete work of pouring the tower footers and cable anchorages were sub-contracted to a local concrete man by the name of James McGroty. A total of 1,700 cubic feet of concrete was poured between August and September and the work was officially completed on October 20th 1910.

The super structure of the bridge was built in the matter of two months and without the use of any major machinery. Everything was moved and lifted into place by man power, pulleys, rope and winches. There was one fatal accident during its construction. A Native American Iron Worker by the name of Louis Jacobs was thrown over the side of the bridge when a piece of iron fell on the planks he was standing on, ejecting him from the structure. He fell into the shallows of the rivers and broke both his legs. He was pulled out of the river and relocated to a local home for a doctor, before being transported to a hospital in Cornwall, Ontario. While reported to be doing fair, a few days after the accident he ultimately died leaving behind a wife and several kids.

Beyond the one fatality the construction of the bridge went smoothly and it opened on time and on budget on January 1st 1911.

The bridge serviced the community for 67 years from January 1st 1911 until its closure in 1977.  It became obsolete in the 1950s with the construction of the Saint Lawrence Seaway.  Less than a mile upstream a new steel girder (two lane) highway bridge was built as part of the St. Lawrence Seaway Project Access Road.  After the completion of the Seaway the access road and modern bridge would become part of the newly created State Highway 131.

Aerial shot of the Robinson Suspension Bridge. 1968.

The bridge began to fall into a state of disrepair starting in the 1950s, its biggest issues being the need of fresh paint and the condition of the roadbed.  The original wood plank decking of the bridge had been removed sometime in the 1930s and replaced with metal sheeting covered in macadam.  Much like the rest of the bridge, its age and the wear and tear was showing.  In 1955 a resolution was filed with the Town Council for a historical marker to be erected at the bridge, honoring Holton Robinson and his family.  This resolution triggered the discussion of a bigger topic by the Town Council, which was what to do with the now obsolete bridge.  In short should they repair it, or tear it down, which was cheaper.

In 1958, Saint Lawrence County began taking over ownership of all major bridges in the county, which included the major bridges in the Town of Massena.  Ownership of the Robinson Bridge was transferred from the Town to the County, and while the county may have painted the bridge once, no other action was taken.  It is apparent by several Letters to the Editor in the mid 1970s that the bridge was in need of fresh paint again.  When the County Highway Department was asked, it was indicated that at some point the county would paint the bridge, but it hadn’t come up on the schedule just yet.  The county then closed the bridge in 1977 due to the deterioration of the roadbed and decking.

Since then little has occurred around the Robinson Bridge.  In 1989 an attempt was made by a local group of citizens to have the Town Council begin efforts in restoring the bridge.  The council voted on having the bridge inspected and stress tested by an engineering firm to see if it was still structurally sound, and if so would attempt to have the structure placed on the US National Registry of Historical Places.  Beyond local newspaper reports of the winning vote, it seems nothing else was ever done.

Recently in 2017 a local Massena Center resident by the name of Cindy Bradford began work on erecting a historical marker and possibly having the bridge re-opened by the county as a pedestrian crossing.  Efforts towards the County Highway Department failed due to lack of time and funds.  Efforts for the Historical Marker has gained traction, thanks to the starting efforts of then Town Supervisor Joseph Gray, and after his defeat in November 2017, Councilman Sam Carbone Jr.  At the time of this article a grant application was being written to cover the cost of the marker.

Next: Why The Bridge Is Nationally Historic (Robinson Project, Part 2).

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