Staff photo by Don Himsel   Archive photo courtesy of Matt Cosgro

EDITOR’S NOTE: Imagine Nashua: Then & Now is a weekly photo column by Don Himsel. Each week, he will feature an old photo within a more recent photo, along with the story behind it.

It began with a spark. It ended with a bang.

“Spectacular fire destroys Rochester bridge at midnight Saturday night,” reported The Nashua Telegraph on June 28, 1909.

The bridge over the Merrimack River between Nashua and Hudson carried an important rail line for what was commonly known as the Worcester, Nashua and Portland Division line (though several combinations of efforts over the years resulted in different names).

“Spark from eastbound freight presumable cause. Destruction of bridge seriously interferes with traffic between Portland and Worcester; 32 trains per day crossed the bridge. Temporary structure consisting of a substantial pile bridge will be completed in a week; daylight Sunday morning saw work on this begun.

“Burned bridge largest on division, erected 34 years ago at cost (with foundation) of $80,000 was well-known landmark,” it read.

Thousands awoke and arrived at the riverbank to watch the blaze. Firefighters could only prevent it from spreading at either end.

A sidebar to the story read, “The blazing bridge was mirrored in the placid waters of the Merrimack and the reflection seemed as bright as the fire itself. A Boston Herald photo taken from the Nashua side of the river the following Sunday morning shows the smoldering remains in the river. The stone piers, thought damaged, survived.

The bridge was built over a two-year period in the early 1870s. A coffer dam was built at the time to assist in putting in the stone piers, which you can still see today downstream from the Taylor’s Falls Bridge.

“Although of the old fashioned type, the bridge was rated to be the most solid upon the division. Last winter it was re-roofed,” the Telegraph story read.

Crews got to work immediately – meaning that Sunday – to get rid of debris, erect a temporary structure using pilings and get on with putting up a permanent replacement.

“It is generally understood that the permanent structure when put in will be a modern steel bridge, and that the road will endeavor to have it completed before the breaking up of the ice in the Merrimack next spring, which might strain a pile bridge.”

Sure enough, that’s exactly what they did.

On Feb. 3, 1910, the newspaper heralded the near completion of the new bridge. The replacement structure – close to 1,000-tons – was built in record time (about four weeks) by the Boston Bridge Co. It was built in three sections by a crew of about 70 workers.

Eventually absorbed by Boston and Maine Railroad, the line was shut down in 1942. Destined for the scrap heap, it was then that the soldiers from Maryland arrived – Fort Belvoir, specifically. The place where army engineers learned how to blow things up.

On Dec. 26, 1942, two dynamite charges were set off, causing serious concern for some Nashua and Hudson residents – who had no idea what had happened – and some equally serious damage to nearby buildings.

“The blasts, set off by Army engineers at the Nashua end of the old Rochester line railroad bridge, blew in window panes and shook down plaster in many houses and seriously damaged the community church,” The Nashua Telegraph reported.

“A 50-pound charge was ignited at 12 o’clock noon and a second charge of 100 pounds was set off at 12:15. About 20 minutes before the explosions took place, the town’s selectmen were requested to send four officers to guard the Hudson end of the structure. No time was allowed to warn persons in nearby houses to the impending detonations.

“The force of the blasts caused damage in an area along the river extending from the Baker and Cornell blocks to the Gregoire Ledoux’s house on the Lowell Road. Homes at Riverside Pines were badly shaken. Many houses on Maple, Fulton and Central Streets sustained broken window panes and cracked plaster in upstairs rooms. The Harold Farnum residence on Fulton Street was littered with plaster, broken glass, house plants overturned by the shocks and curtains torn by the glass. (The explosions were) felt as far away as the Benson Animal Farm.” Stained-glass windows were shattered at the Community Church nearby. Phones were ringing off the hook.

These tests came in advance of the real demo work, which was planned to be accomplished by a 500-pound charge “during future army maneuvers.” Hudson selectmen called senators (Styles) Bridges and (Charles) Tobey who lodged a protest with General Sherman Miles of the First Corp. Area.”

The powers-that-be decided blowing the thing up wasn’t a good idea. Exactly how the rest of it was taken down, I’m not entirely sure.

“First Service Command, which has military jurisdiction over this area, disclaimed all knowledge of the blasting and an investigation was set in motion by the state’s senatorial delegation,” the newspaper later reported. “Demolishing of the bridge had been tentatively planned as a climax to military maneuvers and 48 hours’ notice was to have been given before any blasting took place.”

As part of the investigation, the general called back the officer who made the decision. Property owners were interviewed. “Officials took notes of the damage recorded and notified officials that forms, in triplicate, for submitting claims for damage, would be forwarded to Hudson residents immediately.” Eventually, the Army paid up.

The archive photo shows the bridge in transition, moving from the temporary piling structure to the new steel span. The site is now a popular, but unauthorized, swimming hole in the warmer months. Captain Dave Morin of Hudson’s fire department says the department’s divers have seen leftover steel at the bottom of the river.

Don Himsel can be reached at 594-6590, DHimsel@nashuatelegraph.com or @Telegraph_DonH.

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