What Makes the Robinson Bridge Historic (Robinson Project, Part 2)

Well, it is 108 years old which makes it officially an antique.  But there are plenty of more reasons why the Robinson Bridge is quite historic, technically on a national scale, thanks to its creator and the choices he made in designing the bridge.

Holton Duncan Robinson standing on the cables of a suspension bridge.

The Massena Center Suspension Bridge (or Robinson’s Bridge) was designed and built by Holton Duncan Robinson.  A native born son of Massena Center (1863), Holton grew up on his family’s homestead on the southern shores of the Saint Lawrence River.  He was the Grandson of Daniel Robinson, one of Massena’s first pioneers who traversed the Saint Lawrence up to the foot of the Long Sault Rapids.  There he began clearing the land and built a log cabin in a bay just south of George Barnhart’s island.  This bay would of course be dubbed Robinson’s Bay.  Daniel would establish a farm southwest of the cabin around what is now the area of Eisenhower Lock of the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

Holton was a graduate of what would become the Massena School District, starting off in the one room school house located in the Hamlet of Massena Center.  After advancing through High School, he would attend Saint Lawrence University in nearby Canton, New York and attain a Bachelors Degree in Science.  He would then join up with a man named Leffert Buck after graduating.

Leffert Buck, SLU Alumni 1863, Bridge Engineer, A Man of Few Words

Leffert Buck was a native son of Canton, New York.  His Great-Grandfather Isaac Buck established a saw and shingle mill on the banks of Grasse River in Northern Canton in 1806.  The area and the small hamlet that formed around the mills would become known as Buck’s Bridge due to the bridge built between the two mills.  Leffert was educated by the future Canton School District and attended Saint Lawrence University, graduating in 1863 (the same year Holton Robinson was born).  Afterwards he would build a career as a bridge engineer, constructing various train bridges across the country and continent.  Some of these include the Verrugas Bridge in Peru, South America, and the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge in Niagara Falls, New York.

Leffert Buck and Holton Robinson would be partners for several projects, such as the Pont De Rennes Train Bridge in Rochester, New York.  One of their biggest accomplishments was when Buck joined forces with architect Henry Hornbostel and designed and built the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn, New York.

After the construction of the Williamsburg Bridge, Holton would move on and join up with the Glyndon Contracting Company, starting off as an engineer but quickly making his way up the ranks until he was the Chief Engineer of the company.  While working for the company Holton would create a never before seen 21 inch suspension cable along with the production plant to create it.  This cable would be used in the construction of the Manhattan Bridge in New York City.

Manhattan Bridge, New York City

Much like the Williamsburg Bridge, Buck and Robinson would work together as Chief and Assistant Engineers on the project, and was part of a team of 5 Chief/Assistant Engineers who designed the bridge under the guidance of Leon Moisseiff.  Construction of the Manahattan Bridge wrapped up in 1909.

As fate would have it as Holton was finishing with the Manhattan Bridge, word of the Massena Center bridge project reached his ears thanks to his brother Joseph.  He frequently visited the North Country, returning to his alma mater SLU, visiting friends and family in Massena Center, or even doing bridge inspections for the local towns.

During the fall season Holton made several trips up and down the Grasse River in the Center studying the riverbanks seeking an ideal location for a bridge.  One of the requirements for the bridge was that it was either strong enough or tall enough to not be effected by the spring thaws and ice dam floodings that took place in the river, and the reason a bridge hadn’t been built yet.  He picked a location in a U section of river where the banks were high and steep, and the river channel narrow.  He decided to design a cable suspension bridge that would be high enough to avoid the flooding, and he drafted the design of the Robinson Bridge and presented it to the Town Council.

The original bridge proposal vote in 1909 had given the project a budget of $30,000, but Robinson’s bridge design would come in anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 more than the original budget.  The Town Council held a special meeting and voted on Robinson’s design, and on April 14th 1910 the bridge project was approved.  Like any public works project, it was placed up for bidding for local construction companies.

There are two different stories on how Holton Robinson came to build the bridge.  The first is based on newspaper articles found at the time (via nyshistoricnewspapers.org).  In this version the project was placed up for bid and the town, and they received two bids.  The first was from Roebling and Sons Construction Company for $40,000, but included changes to the bridge design.  The second was from Holton Robinson himself for $39,990.  The Town Council picked Holton as his price was technically lower, and of course there was no design changes to his own design.

The second story has been seen and heard from various stories and groups in the North Country.  In this version the project was placed up for bid by the town, and they received only one bid from an unnamed company for $60,000.  When word of this reached back to Holton, he guaranteed the town that the bridge of his design could be built for $40,000, and he volunteered himself to build it himself.

Either way, the project came into Holton Robinson’s hands in the Summer of 1910.  He (temporarily) stepped down from his position at the Glyndon Contracting Company as Chief Engineer to return home and build the bridge.  From the Robinson Project, Part 1:

Construction began on July 20th 1910 with the concrete work of pouring the tower footers and cable anchorages which 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.

After the construction of the Massena Center Suspension Bridge, Holton would return to the Glyndon Company briefly before moving on and partnering up with a man name Daniel B. Steinman to form the construction firm of Robinson & Steinman.  Together they built numerous bridges all over the world starting with the Florianopolis Bridge in Brazil.  Other bridges include:

  • The Carquinez Strait Bridge (2nd largest cantilever bridge in US)
  • Mount Hope
  • Grand Mere Suspension Bridge
  • St. Johns Bridge
  • Waldo-Hancock Bridge
  • Sky Ride (at the Chicago Century of Progress exposition)
  • Henry Hudson Bridge
  • Deer Isle Bridge
  • Sullivan-Hutsonville Bridge
  • Thousand Island Bridge System
    • Wellesley & Hill Islands Bridge
    • Wellesley Island Suspension Bridge
    • Georgina Island Bridge

Over the course of his career, Holton made a name for himself as one of the leading suspension bridge engineers of the early 20th century.  His specialty was in the construction and design of suspension bridge cables, including unique stretching, seizing and binding techniques that earned him several US Patents.  His biggest accomplishment was the invention of the cable wrapping machine.  On most modern built suspension bridges, the main cables which are made out of multiple smaller cables which are typically wrapped in a fine wire to weather proof them and bind them together, giving them the appearance of being one massive cable.

Before the invention of Holton’s machine, this construction process was done with manual tools and took over 6 months at times to complete.  Holton’s self powered machine did the job in less than a month.  For this invention and his other contributions to suspension bridges, Holton became a life long member of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1929.

Modern Day Wire Wrapping Machine

Upon his death in 1945 his partner Daniel Steinman boasted that there was not a single modern built suspension bridge in the entire world that Holton Robinson had not at least been consulted on about.

And despite all the bridges Holton built in the world, he seemed to always return to the bridge he built for his hometown.  After its construction anytime Holton was visiting the area, he would inspect ‘his bridge’.  When the original wood decking was replaced with metal sheeting and macadam, Holton made a special trip up to inspect the bridge and ensure it could handle this design change.  And when the 1944 Cornwall – Massena Earthquake occurred, he wrote to his family friends at The Center to inquire about his bridge, bragging that he doubt it had moved even an inch during the disaster.

In this letter he also talks about returning to Massena after his duties in World War 2 finished and doing an overhaul on his bridge, with plans to expand the deck from 12 feet to something large and more accommodating to modern vehicles.  But he passed away before anything was ever done.


What makes the Robinson Bridge historical?

Robinson’s legacy as an earliest 20th century bridge builder and his contributions to suspension bridges should make the Massena Center Suspension Bridge important enough to be technically seen as a National Historic Structure.  But beyond that the bridge itself features several unique facts that make it just that more historic.

  • The bridge is dubbed a miniature suspension bridge due to its short length.  Suspension bridges are typically used to transverse long distances, but the Robinson Bridge at Massena Center is only technically ‘400’ feet long from tower to tower.  With the anchorages and approach roads the structure is 680 feet long.  Very few highway suspension bridges were built this small.

 

  • The bridge is only a ‘single lane’ suspension bridge with a 12 foot roadway deck.  Very few single lane suspension bridges were ever built (and kept) in the United States, and currently the Robinson Bridge is the only known left standing.

 

  • The main cables of the bridge (seven strand galvanized cables, 4.5 inches in diameter) were not wrapped in wire.  This was done for several reasons, the primary reason being to save on time and construction cost.  Holton instead used a special technique to squeeze and seize the cables together, making them virtually impervious to the elements.  He also uses special grapple clamps to bind the main cables together every 11 feet.  These grapple clamps double as the lateral cable seats that connect the main cables to the lateral suspender cables.

The Robinson Bridge is literally ‘one of a kind’ and only a few other bridges in the United States share the same design choices (namely the unwrapped main cables and special grapple clamps).  These bridges were also built by Holton.

For these two main reasons, the Robinson Bridge should be classified as a National Historical Structure.

Thank you for reading, our next article will be less of a history lesson, and more ‘in the now’, as we discuss the concept of a restoration project for the bridge.

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