by Frank Connors
The Merrymeeting Bay Bridge was constructed in 1835, a crudely engineered, wooden span over the Androscoggin River between Topsham and East Brunswick. For more than 60 years, the half-mile long toll bridge served as a short cut between upper and lower Sagadahoc County, as a link between the agricultural upper towns and the expanding city of Bath.
Martin Hall of Bowdoinham was the original contractor on the bridge. Owen's History of Bath says, "The bridge was constructed at a cost of about $20,000 . . . Bath assisted in the venture and became a principal corporate partner in the enterprise," by purchasing 160 of the 425 shares of common stock offered in the initial sale.
William Purington of Bowdoinham and William Randall of Topsham were among the first private stockholders. The list of proprietors included William King, George F. Patten, Joseph Sewall, David C. Magoun, William Richardson, John Patten, Daniel Marston, Charles Clapp and Oliver Moses, all of Bath.
The bridge was 2,700 feet in length, with a wooden deck 24-feet wide. It was supported first on wooden pilings set 20 feet apart in the shifting river sands; then, when ice and currents became a problem, rocks were added around the pilings to protect them. Still later, improvements projects on the bridge led to replacement of the wooden pilings with granite block supports.
Some of this old stone work is still visible from the Bay Bridge Road off Topsham Fore side, and from the Bay Bridge Road on the Brunswick side, near the Harry C. Crooker and Sons construction firm. The bridge extended from Crooker's shore to Mustard's Island, then across the island and a short stretch of the Androscoggin to Topsham.
Unfortunately the Bay Bridge was never a financial success; maintenance costs always seemed to outstrip income at the toll booth. In 1837, when the bridge was barely more than a year old, Bath was forced to borrow money to meet an assessment against its stock for major repairs.
In 1842, Bath's representatives to the bridge corporation returned a statement to the town showing that on January 1 of that year, just $34.27 remained in the treasury after the toll keeper's salary was paid and each of the stock holders was credited with a $2 dividend.
Tolls averaged about $1,200 per year, but in 1843, when tolls amounted to $1,300, repairs to the bridge cost $1,240.
In 1846, Bath authorized a loan not to exceed $10,000, "to meet the assessment that may be made on the town's shares to repair Merrymeeting Bridge." And that amount was needed to cover only Bath's share! It has been estimated that in the 50-year history of the bridge, more than $1 million was spend on the construction, repairs and maintenance of the span.
Tolls were never sufficient to meet the bridge expenses for two reasons. First, there was the nearly annual spring freshet on the Androscoggin River which frequently damaged the bridge, and sometimes carried away one or several of the spans completely. Secondly, the bridge owners had to sit idly by each winter when the river froze, and travelers took to the ice instead of the toll span.
If floods and ice weren't enough, the bridge owners soon discovered that the shifting sands of the river bottom would be another constant source of problems. Spans and piers were vulnerable to undermining, and as proprietors fought washouts with backfilling, they were usually distressed to find that their filling operations simply caused new problems and pressures against another section.
The first toll keeper on the bridge was John Foster, who held the position about ten years. Samuel W. Foote tended the bridge from 1851 until 1875. Lewis Thomas kept it for five years, Thomas Nutter for nine years (both dates are unknown), and Lydia Young was keeper when the bridge went out with the freshet of 1896.
An 1858 map of Sagadahoc County shows the toll keeper's house on the Brunswick side of the bridge, yet we do know that tolls were also collected in Topsham. The location of the toll house usually depended upon who was taking tolls at the time, and if the keeper happened to live in Topsham or in Brunswick or Bath.
A Brunswick newspaper reported the launching of a brig named the Carrie Purington at Topsham above the bridge in 1870. The ship owners brought their new vessel downstream, only to find the channel under the draw span blocked by a sand bar. The Purlington had to be anchored off Mustard's Island until a regular span of the bay bridge could be removed. This was finally done, and the Purlington did reach salt water, but we learn from this report that the Bay Bridge must have been a problem to shipbuilders, fishermen and merchants who wanted to use the river above the span for sailing vessels.
By 1864, the last of the private stockholders became fed up with their investment and abandoned all interest in the span to the City of Bath, which bore the considerable burden of financial responsibility until 1875.
BATH WANTS OUT
In 1875, one span of the bridge was carried off by spring ice, and Bath, seemingly fed up with its burden, voted to spend no more money on the bridge unless a new method of shared financing could be arranged.
For three years, the bridge stood unused and in disrepair until 1878, when the state legislature stepped in and decreed that Bath could give the bridge to Sagadahoc County if the voters of the county approved the idea in a county-wide referendum.
Sagadahoc County towns voted the question in March of 1878. Bath, Bowdoinham and Arrowsic voted yes, while the rest of the county said no, but the vote in Bowdoinham was a unanimous endorsement of the plan, and Bath had just 11 opposition votes, so the two municipalities carried the day and Sagadahoc County became the owner of the Merrymeeting Bridge.
The county commissioners let a contract to rebuild the bridge in April of 1878, and later that same year, the bridge was reopened. Under the commissioners' direction, many of the old wooden spans were replaced with metal sections.
The county maintained the bridge until 1896, when ice and flood waters of a spring freshet carried off several sections of the bridge and its piers. Several votes were held in an attempt to rebuild the bridge, but all of them failed. Merrymeeting Bay Bridge was never reopened.
RATES OF TOLL
Bowdoinham Advertiser &endash; February 1977
Frank Connors, Editor
from the Bowdoinham Advertiser, October 27, 1887
Our county commissioners, S.W. Carr, Dyall Bibber and N.S. Purington, have engaged John P. Rideout, Bowdoinham, to fill in eight of the spans of the BAY BRIDGE. The project will cost $6,000, and will comprise seven spans on the east side of the center island, and one on the west. The project will run a total of 400 feet in length, requiring about 4,000 cubic yards of stone and earth fill.
Bowdoinham Advertiser, July 1978
Frank Connors, Editor