The Robinson Bridge

The 60 Year Battle

The first and only other known bridge to be built at Massena Center was erected in 1832.  During the ice break of the Spring of 1833, the river dammed itself, flooded and lifted the bridge off its foundation, destroying it.  These floods were frequent in the river during the Spring.  If an ice dam didn’t form in the Grasse River itself, they typically formed downstream in the Hogansburg area.  It was said when an ice dam took hold, the rivers could rise anywhere from 5 to 15 feet in the matter of minutes, and that even the mighty force of the Long Sault Rapids could be reduced to the calmness of a mill pond.

Because of this common flooding event, the Town of Massena was reluctant to build its own bridge in Massena Center or anywhere in the last 7 mile stretch of the Grasse River.  The Main Street Bridge in Downtown Massena was too far away to be effected by the flooding, and remained the only crossing over the Grasse River in Massena in the early days.

The Town made its first official move in 1892 when Town Supervisor Michael H. Flaherty filed a resolution with the Town Clerk proposing the construction of a bridge at Massena for $10,000.  His reasoning was the main complaints of the citizens of East Massena.  If someone from Barnhart Island, Robinson Bay, Massena Point or Massena Center wanted to travel west out of the town, they had to cross both the Grasse River and Raquette River.  The Raquette River had two crossings over it, a bridge at Massena Springs south of Downtown, and the hamlet known as Raquette River, located only 2 miles southeast from Massena Center.

Thus if one was to travel from Massena Point heading for the town of Malone, they would be required to travel five miles to the Downtown Bridge, and then seven miles back to Raquette River, and that was a lot of distance to cover when your means of travel was a horse and carriage.

The topic was discussed for a year with even a little heated gossip.  Somewhere along the way, Jeremiah O’Neil who lived on the southern banks of the Grasse River surveyed his own road and bridge location, and people mistook this as official work.  At the time any project like this was voted on by not only the Town Council but the voting citizens themselves, and thus people started accusing the Town of going ahead without a vote.  Mr. O’Neil took to the editorial and explained that it was all his own doing, and then proposed to build the bridge himself for the town.

The Massena Observer editorial was dotted with various discussions about the bridge, namely the cost and that a useful bridge could not be built for a mere $10,000.  Mr. Flaherty argued the point towards voting time, providing a written letter from a bridge building company with details of a box truss bridge that could withstand the forces of mother nature with the price tag of only $10,000.  It was then a few citizens pointed out that the plan was only for the bridge and piers itself, and did not include the additional cost of the approach roads.

In 1893 the subject was voted on in the yearly Town Vote.  At this time the local government operated on a yearly cycle, and each year the tax paying citizens of Massena would gather in the Town Hall and vote for both proposals and that year’s officials.  This included the positions of Town Councilmen and even the Town Supervisor.  Flaherty was able to keep his job, but the bridge was voted down and the subject put to rest.

O’Neil & Robinson

The subject was not raised again for twenty years.  In that time the landscape of Massena had changed drastically with the construction of the Massena Power Canal by the Saint Lawrence Power Company.  With its construction came the construction of the Pittsburgh Reduction Company’s first large scale aluminum smelter.  Aluminum was a new commodity on the market, has only decades before the metal was worth more than gold by weight.  This facility would grow for the next fifty years and permanently change the landscape of East Massena.  The canal itself made a new barrier to cross.

In 1909 the current Town Supervisor Barney O’Neil proposed the construction of a bridge at Massena Center for $30,000, and the Town Council approved it.  With the changes made to the landscape and the dawning of the automobile, there was now a suitable need for a highway bridge to be constructed.

Word of this project traveled back to the ears of Holton Duncan Robinson of New York City, thanks to his brother Joseph.  The Robinson Family was one of the first settlers in East Massena. Holton’s Grandfather had settled in the area south of Barnhart Island in what would become Robinson Bay near Massena Center.  Holton himself was born at The Center and probably grew up hearing about the need for a bridge.

A graduate of Saint Lawrence University with a Bachelors in Science, Mr. Robinson had been crafting a name for himself as a bridge engineer.  After graduating SLU Mr. Robinson had joined up with Leffert L. Buck, an alumni and established bridge engineer from Canton, NY.  Together they built the famous Williamsburg Bridge in New York City with Buck as Engineer, and Robinson as Assistant Engineer.

Afterwards Robinson continued his career with the Glydon Contracting Company developing new cable designs for suspension bridges.  He designed a “never before seen” 21 inch cable that would become the main cables of the Manhattan Bridge, and developed several unique methods on suspension cable design and construction.

Upon hearing about the Massena Center Bridge Project, he volunteered his time to come back to his hometown and help with the project, namely design and location.  After about a year of research, he proposed the construction of a 600 foot suspension bridge with a design cost of $40,000.  The Town Council held a special meeting about it, and approved the bridge and the additional $10,000 required over the original $30,000 proposal.

The project was announced and placed up for bidding by construction firms.  The town received two bids.

The first bid was by the John A. Roebling’s Sons & Company of New York City.  Its founder John Roebling was the designer and constructor of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the company in general would go on to build several famous bridges, such as San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.  Their bid for the project was for $40,000 but included multiple changes to project.

The second bid was by Holton Robinson himself, for $39,990 and obviously no design changes.

The Town Council voted and Holton Robinson won the contract.  He actually stepped down as the Chief Engineer at the Glydon Contracting Company to come home and build this bridge.  Work began almost immediately.

The Construction

The bridge itself and even its construction was considered unique for the time.  It was a bridge that was going to be built without the aid of steam shovels or other machinery, and the bridge would be built start to finish in just under six months.  The project had an official deadline of opening by January 1st 1910.

Work began in August by James McGroty who was sub-contracted by Robinson to pour the tower piers, abutments and cable anchors.  His work was completed on October 20th 1909.  From this point Robinson took control with a crew and erected the bridge.





Louis Jacobs of Cornwall Island

There was one fatal accident during the construction of the bridge.  A Native American Iron Worker by the name of Louis Jacobs of Cornwall Island lost his life on November 30th 1909.  While hoisting a large piece of iron into place on the northern towers, the derrick raising the piece collapsed, causing the iron piece to fall.  It slammed into the planks Louis was standing on, ejecting him over the side of the bridge.

There are two different stories to the accident.  The first was that he was thrown into the Grasse River and managed to swim back to shore.  A more official report says he was thrown to the mud.

After the fall, he was taken to a local residence and inspected by a Doctor.  He suffered two broken legs along with various scraps and bruises, and had one of the legs amputated.  It was said in the initial newspaper report it said he was expected to recover, but he died of his injuries two days later.  He left behind a wife and several kids.

Robinson would go to court over this accident after the completion of the bridge.  He was generally found guilty though the Court acknowledged the unique and difficulties surrounding the construction of the unique bridge, and paid a restitution to the Widow Jacobs of $1,850 ($47,000 in 2018).

The bridge served the hamlet of Massena Center from 1911 until its closure by the county in 1976.

Troubles began brewing for the structure in the 1950s with the construction of the Saint Lawrence Seaway.  A new modern steel girder highway bridge was constructed less than a mile upstream to accommodate the heavy trucks and traffic, making the crossing at Massena Center obsolete.

The bridge was also showing its signs of age and lack of maintenance by the Town Government.  It was badly in need of paint, and this was actually weaponized during several election cycles by the minority party in town, the Massena Democrats.  In 1956 a citizen of Massena Center suggested erecting a historical marker at the bridge, which at the next Town Council Meeting triggered the discussion of “What is cheaper, to paint it and keep it open, or to just tear the entire thing down”.  Thankfully two years later, St. Lawrence County would pass a resolution and take possession of all bridges over a certain length, so the Robinson Bridge became the property of county.

While the bridge was probably painted after the county took possession, the subject was raised again in 1974, the bridge was in need of paint.  When asked St. Lawrence County said that they would get to it at some point, that the bridge wasn’t scheduled to be painted yet, but moving up on a list.  The bridge was closed in 1976 due to the deterioration of the steel and asphalt decking.

The bridge has dodged the wrecking ball on several occasions, being saved by its own local historic status.  In 1989 a group petitioned the Town Council to began making a move on saving the structure.  A resolution was voted on and passed and the Town began plans to have the bridge inspection, to see if it was still structurally sound and usable, and to submit an application for it to be listed on the National Registry of Historic Places & Structures.  But nothing came from it.

A Historical Marker was again proposed in 2017 thanks to the efforts of local Centerite Cindy Bradford.  The marker is currently pending approval by the county & state, along with a grant application to pay for the marker and its placement.  Other efforts are in progress for a possible restoration and preservation project to save the bridge.

Holton Robinson cared for this bridge.  He built it in the earlier part of his career as a bridge builder but despite all the bridges he built, he always took personal care of the Robinson Bridge himself.  He frequently visited Northern New York from his home in NYC, and always came to inspect the bridge.  When the town refurbished the deck from its original wood planks to steel sheeting covered in asphalt, Robinson made sure the bridge could handle it.

After the 1944 Cornwall – Massena Earthquake he wrote to his dear family friends the Rickard Family in Massena Center to inquire how his bridge had held up.  In this letter he also talks about returning to Massena Center after the end of World War 2 and making improvements on the bridge, such as expanding the deck to a double lane, but Holton passed away in 1945, before anything could be done.

What Makes The Bridge Historic

  • Holton Duncan Robinson
    • Locally born grandson of one of the first settlers.
    • Graduate of Saint Lawrence University
    • Esteemed career as a suspension bridge engineer.
      • Holds 5 patents on various suspension cable designs.
      • Is credited with inventing the wire wrapping machines used on suspension bridge that cut the cost and time of suspension bridge construction in half.
      • Life Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
  • Unique Design Features
    • The Main Cables – The main cables of a suspension bridge are large cables made up of small cables.  The cables are stretched over the towers and anchored in place on either end of the bridge.  It is generally common in design for these multiple main cables to be wrapped in a wire skin, which is why on most suspension bridges those main cables appear as one giant cable.  Its to bind the cables together and protect them from the elements.  In fact it was one of Holton’s machine that turned this process from taking 6 months to under a month.
      • To save on cost and construction time, the Massena Center Suspension Bridge was designed without this outer wire wrapping.  Instead Holton used special squeezing and binding techniques to bind the cables together and make them impervious to the elements.
      • He designed special cable saddles, the hardware that connects the ‘downward’ cables holding the deck to the main cables of the bridge.  The saddles of the Robinson Bridge serve a secondary purpose of acting as cable grippers, binding the multiple main cables together.
    • The Size of the Bridge
      • Miniature.  While the entire bridge is roughly 625 feet in length, suspension bridges are gauged by the distance between their towers.  At only 400 feet between the towers, the Robinson Bridge is considered very small for a suspension bridge, which where usually reserved for bridging vast divides.  Robinson picked a suspension bridge as it would be tall enough to avoid the ice dam floods, and also allow larger boats to travel underneath it.
      • Single Lane.  Most 20th century highway suspension bridges feature a double lane.  At only 12 feet wide the Robinson Bridge barely registers as a single lane.  This was done to keep the weight of the bridge down, allowing it to carry heavier loads.
    • Thanks to these unique design choices, the bridge is literally one of a kind in the world.