PORTSMOUTH/BRISTOL — Mt. Hope Bridge Opening on Thursday Biggest Event of Similar Nature Ever Held in This Part of Country,” blared the front page of the Oct. 22, 1929 Bristol Phoenix, then a twice-weekly priced at two cents.
While the headline-writer could have been accused of hyperbole, the bridge opening was indeed a spectacle to which people flocked from all over the Northeast.
But it didn’t come without a heavy price, as bridge workers’ deaths, a failed cabling system that had to be replaced and massive traffic pileups after the opening cast a shadow over what was considered to be a monumental feat of engineering at the time.
Designed in 1927 by Robinson and Steinman, construction began on Dec. 1, 1927. The bridge was originally built for the Mt. Hope Bridge Company as a privately owned toll bridge. (It was purchased by the State of Rhode Island in 1955 and is now administered by the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority.)
A major construction snafu was discovered the following year, according to Town Historian Jim Garman.
“When they built it, they tried a new system of cabling — something to do with the heating of the cables — and they strung it up,” said Mr. Garman, who called it a failed experiment. “Then they started laying the deck plating on it. I don’t know how much of that they got done, but certainly enough to put a lot of weight on the bridge. And the cable started fraying, and they had to take the cabling down and put in new cabling.”
In addition, several workers died during construction, he said, including one man who fell 135 feet from atop one of the towers in 1928. He landed feet first on the concrete before bouncing into the water below. Another time, a girder rolled off a truck, pinning a worker beneath it, according to Mr. Garman.
At a cost of $4 million, the 6,130-foot suspension bridge was the longest span in New England when it opened on Oct. 24, 1929. A dark footnote regarding that date: It also happened to be “Black Thursday,” when the stock market lost 11 percent of its value at the opening bell, leading to panic and chaos on the trading floor. Five days later came the full crash, and the country was sent spiraling into the Great Depression.
In these parts, however, the spectacle of the bridge’s grand opening was the big news, as an estimated 30,000 people turned out for the festivities. To give the event the pomp and circumstance it deserved, many participants dressed as historical figures from the past as they walked over the bridge.
“There was really a historical pageant,” said Mr. Garman. “They had people dressed up like Puritans and the founders and had real Native Americans there.”
The pageant was arranged by the Rhode Island and Newport historical societies. Oscar F. Stetson of Barrington, playing Roger Williams, marched to the center of the span to exchange copies of the original Providence and Portsmouth compacts with “John Clarke,” founder of the “Island of Rhode Island” and played by the Rev. Wilbur Nelson, pastor of the John Clarke Memorial Baptist Church in Newport.
The bridge remained open to the public without charge until 4 p.m., when the Bristol-Portsmouth ferry boat — maintained for more than 250 years until the bridge put it out of business — made its last run. Several thousand people walked or rode over.
While traffic was heavy that first day, it was nothing compared to what transpired three days later. The Oct. 29, 1929 edition of the Bristol Phoenix reported a line of automobiles nearly 10 miles long on Oct. 27.
“The largest gathering of automobiles that has ever taken place in this town was that of last Sunday when, it was estimated, about 18,000 machines … filled with people were on Ferry road and Hope street in a line from the Mt. Hope Bridge into the town of Warren and over Kelley’s bridge into the Town of Barrington,” the article stated, adding people eager to see the magnificent new span were coming from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont. They moved about one car’s length every minute, with 8,450 vehicles crossing the bridge between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., according to the Phoenix. Many drivers, having been in line for hours, left the area without ever having reached the bridge, the article stated.
Tolls weren’t cheap
The drivers who gave up that day, however, went home with more change in their pockets. Many East Bay residents no doubt remember the little toll booths that were once stationed at the bottom of the Bristol side of the span. The 30-cent toll for a one-way trip was discontinued in 1998 when it was learned the amount didn’t cover the cost of collecting it.
Some drivers may be surprised to learn that it used to be considerably more expensive to cross the bridge. When it was first opened, the private Mt. Hope Bridge Company charged 60 cents one way, and $1 for a round trip.
According to the late John T. Pierce’s 1991 book, “Historical Tracts of the Town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island,” for several years it cost $2 to cross the bridge each way.
“Bristol might just have been a foreign country to the people of Portsmouth as few could afford the fee,” wrote Mr. Pierce. (Mr. Garman, however, doubts that the toll was ever that expensive.)
The Mt. Hope Bridge Company later fell into receivership, and in 1954 the state purchased the bridge, eventually reducing the toll to 30 cents.
Mt. Hope Bridge facts
Construction began: Dec. 1, 1927
Opened:Oct. 24, 1929
Total length: 6,130 feet
Longest span: 1,200 feet
Height of main towers: 285 feet above water
Width: 28 feet
Clearance below: 135 feet
Total steel: 8,350 tons
Total concrete: 40,000 cubic yards
Total wire: 2,620 miles, weighing 700 tons