63 Years In The Making – The Bridge Historical Marker

Photo by Ruthann Rowe Matthews

On May 31st 1956 a widow by the name of Pauline Pratt Nims approached the Massena Town Council and suggested the erection of a dedication plaque at the site of the Massena Center Bridge.

Mrs. Nims was an enthusiast of local history, the daughter of Walter Pratt (former Massena Mayor 1920 to 1922 and member of the New York State Assembly from 1923 until his passing in 1934), the mother of two and a widow as of 1952 with the passing of her husband Harry Nims.

She made the suggestion in hopes to calm some local turmoil that had been brewing in the community. The construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway was in full swing, its epicenter around Massena Point & Massena Center. The ‘upper lock’ that was once dubbed the Robinson Bay Lock had officially been named the Eisenhower Lock, after President Eisenhower. The lock was constructed on the lands the Robinson Family had called home for over 100 years. The home was razed for its construction. The family was one of the earliest settlers in the area and the local community felt it was only best to honor them in naming the lock after them, much like Robinson Bay was named for them.

The Massena Center Suspension Bridge was built in 1909-1910 by Holton Duncan Robinson, Grandson of Daniel Robinson who came to Massena in 1804 and settled the farm Eisenhower Lock was built upon. Holton had grown up on this farm, attended the local single room school house at Massena Center, and graduated from St. Lawrence University with a degree in engineering. He would become a very prominent person in the world of Bridge Engineering specializing in suspension bridges, constructing bridges on 6 of the 7 continents. His works include the Williamsburg Bridge and Manhattan Bridge in New York City, and locally the 1000 Islands Bridge in Alexandria Bay.

For decades the citizens of Massena Point & Massena Center petitioned the Town Council to build a bridge at Massena Center. One bridge was constructed in the 1830s but was swept away during the following Spring thaw. No other attempts were made in the area as the river was prone to major flooding due to ice jams and dams, and the steepness of the banks the area. Anyone who had to travel south of the river had to travel into the Village of Massena and cross at the Main Street Bridge, a significant distance to travel at the time via horse and carriage.

An attempt to build a bridge was voted down in 1890, but Massena quickly changed over the next two decades. The construction of the Massena Power Canal by the St. Lawrence Power Company had both brought a new major employer to town, the Pittsburgh Reduction Company (ALCOA), while also creating a new barrier to travelers from Massena Point & Massena Center.

So in 1909 a resolution was filed by Town Supervisor Barney O’Neill proposing the construction of a highway bridge at Massena Center for $30,000. With support from the local community and Alcoa itself the resolution passed and the project authorized. Mr. O’Neill called upon Holton Robinson to design the bridge for his hometown, and on July 6th 1909 a contract was signed.

Holton spent the next year researching the banks of the Grasse River, and in the Spring of 1910 gave his proposal. The construction of a suspension bridge which would be high enough to avoid the follies of the spring thaw for the price of $40,000, ten thousand more than originally allocated. The Town held a special meeting and approved the bridge design and additional funds to build it. Like any public works project, the construction job was published and took in bids from interested companies.

Only one company placed a bid and it was $20,000 more than the proposed $40,000 allocated for the bridge. Upon hearing this, Holton ensured the town that his bridge could be built for $40,000 and placed his own bid for $39,990. The town quickly accepted his proposal and construction of the bridge began in the Fall of 1910.

Construction began in the middle of July 1910 with the pouring of the concrete footings and anchors by James McGroty. Over 1,700 cubic feet of reinforced concrete was poured to create the foundation. Once the cement cured, Holton moved in and began erecting the bridge. By October 20th the towers of the bridge had been erected and the main cables strung. Construction of the bridge was considered to be unique as the bridge was assembled with very little machinery involved, along with the various weather factors of Massena and Northern New York.

The bridge opened January 1st 1911, on time and on budget. The unique single lane 400 foot suspension bridge serviced the communities of Massena Center and Massena Point for 40 years. Out of all the bridges constructed by Holton Robinson in the following years, the Center bridge seemed to hold a special place for him, as he frequently inspected the structure, even immediately inquiring about it after the famed 1944 Cornwall – Massena Earthquake whose epicenter was relatively close to the bridge. Holton was in the process of planning upgrades to the bridge when he passed in 1945.

A decade plus a year later when Mrs. Nims approached the Massena Town Council about the plaque, the bridge was already falling into disrepair. Several political articles from a few years earlier describe issues with the bridge, namely the structure was in dire need of paint.

With the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a new modern steel girder bridge was constructed 3000 feet upriver from the Suspension Bridge, making it obsolete.

This is why in the meeting following Mrs. Nims suggestion the Massena Town Council discussed what to do with the bridge, asking the most basic question of whether to continue to keep it open or dismantle it. Thankfully nothing at that point was done, and in 1959 the St. Lawrence County Highway Department took ownership of all bridges over a certain length, which included the Massena Center Bridge. The bridge was left in service until the mid-1970s when the county officially closed it, due to the deterioration of the macadamized decking.

Since then little has been done with the bridge. In 1989 a group of citizens approached the Massena Town Council in hopes of preserving the historical structure. The council brought forth a resolution to have the bridge stress tested in preparations to submit an application to the National Registry of Historical Places, but it is unknown if anything was done.

In the late 90s local Centerite Ruthann Matthews spoke with the St. Lawrence County Highway Department about converting the bridge into a footbridge, but was told at the time that the bridge was on the list for demolition.

The recently renewed quest for a historical marker began in 2017 with the inquiries of local Centerite Cindy Bradford. Much like Ms. Matthews, Ms. Bradford contacted the St. Lawrence County Highway Department about doing something about the historic and unused bridge, but was told that there was no funds for anything. Her inquires though brought about the suggestion for a historical marker to honor Holton Robinson, much like Pauline Nims had seeked in 1956.

Thanks to the efforts of many many people, a historical marker was erected at the Northern Bridge Approach on June 27th 2019, with a dedication ceremony planned for July 6th (10 am), 110 years to the day Holton Robinson signed the contract to build the bridge with the Massena Town Council.

The people of the Hamlet of Massena Center would like to thank the following people who made this happen.

Cindy Bradford for kick starting the modern campaign for a historical marker.

Sam Carbone (and Joseph Gray) of the Massena Town Council for listening to Ms. Bradford and making efforts towards erecting the historical marker.

Maryann Casselman & The Massena Museum for writing and applying for the grant that paid for the historical marker.

Tony Arquette of the St. Lawrence County Legislators (District 13) for tapping the shoulder of the St. Lawrence County Highway Department to come and clean up the Northern Bridge Approach of trees and shrubs.

Donald Chambers of the St. Lawrence County Highway Department for dedicating time and effort cleaning up the Northern Bridge Approach.

The Massena Town Highway Department for pouring the cement foundation for the historical marker and Massena Electric for use of their pole drilling truck to dig the foundation hole.

And last the William G. Pomeroy Foundation who provided the grant to make this historical marker possible.

Please join the community on July 6th 2019 at 10 am at the Massena Center Suspension Bridge at 604 County Route 42, Massena, New York for the dedication of the NYS Historical Marker.

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