PEPPERELL – Planning Board member Mark Marston told the story about how he and his wife decided to move to Pepperell once they learned there were no traffic lights and the town had one of the last remaining covered bridges in the commonwealth.
The Marstons aren’t alone for the signature bridge, like the big one that spans the Merrimack River in Tyngsboro, helps make the town unique and attractive to prospective residents.
Newcomers and long-time residents alike have been complaining about the bumpy travel surface of the covered bridge, wondering when the steel plates bolted down over rough patches by the Highway Department will be removed and the road smoothed out.
Construction of an all-wood replacement bridge has been scheduled for at least five years. MassHighway engineering plans have been completed and construction bids are scheduled to be opened in late August.
Related sewer line construction has recently been taking place on Groton Street.
Once construction starts the bridge is expected to remain closed for two years.
According to the Historical Society, the current bridge is the third at the site that has linked the north and south sections of East Pepperell since about 1740.
The original bridge is as prominent in local Revolutionary War history as Lexington’s Battle Green because of an event that took place just a couple of days after the British regulars marched into Lexington and Concord, on April 19, 1775.
That is, of course, the story of Prudence Cummings Wright, a local militia captain, according to research recently done by Tony Sabouliauskas of VFW Post 3291.
Pepperell, Groton and Hollis minutemen had responded to the 1775 Lexington call to arms by the dozens, leaving their wives, mothers and sisters to deal with the children, the farms and any situation that might arise.
Wright had been raised in a household that freely discussed politics and not everyone shared the same opinions. She was a staunch patriot, unlike her brother, Samuel, who was a Tory and loyal to the king.
In 1775, Wright was 35 years old, had been married 14 years, and was mother to six children. While visiting her mother in Hollis, N.H., she overheard her brother and a Tory cohort, Benjamin Whiting, discuss a plan to deliver a message to British regulars that revealed the location of gunpowder hidden by the rebel patriots.
She returned to Pepperell, alerted other patriotic women and marshaled them to “Jewett’s Bridge,” where they hid until nightfall, armed with farm tools. The rifles and muskets had gone with the men.
Shielding their lantern until two Tory horsemen approached from the north, they rushed the riders, demanding to know their identity. Wright’s brother tried to ride away but both he and Benjamin Whiting were dragged from their horses and searched.
Dispatches intended for the British were found and the men were escorted to Solomon Roger’s tavern as prisoners. They were detained for the rest of night before being taken to Groton and the Committee of Safety in the morning.
Seventy years later, at an 1845 town meeting, it was voted to build a new covered bridge at this location “like the one in Hollis placed over the Nashua River called Runnell’s Bridge” according to town clerk records.
Captain Levi Parker was chosen to build the bridge for $1,200 provided he was given the old bridge. The Bridge Committee, believing the existing piers to be sound, did not contract for their replacement. It eventually cost $2,200 to build.
Later town meeting records show how the Bridge Committee described construction as being “inferior to the Hollis bridge,” citing items such as floor timber dimensions (6-inch by 12-inch in Hollis, laid 6 feet apart with two braces between each space. Parker used 4-inch by 12-inch timber laid 39 inches apart).
His roof, however, was superior to Runnell’s in that he used chestnut shingles on both slopes while Runnell’s south slope was pine and just the north side was chestnut. Parker was also required to warranty the bridge for 10 years, for which he was paid one dollar per year.
In 1858, Capt. Parker’s warranty ended. Records show that on Nov. 2 that year, selectmen told the town that Capt. Parker had claimed the pier under the bridge to be his property but would let it remain for the sum of $50; otherwise he intended to remove it.
Capt. Parker explained that as he guaranteed the bridge to be safe, he added a pier “for his own benefit as a security for his guarantee,” according to records. It is noted that the tenor of the meeting was negative, with references to the difficulty that occurred when the bridge was built and the “trickery that developed itself in the whole affair from beginning to end.”
After several speeches, a motion was made to instruct the selectmen to build a new pier if they could not settle with Capt. Parker for the old one, which was voted.
The bridge was maintained and modified over the years, retaining its status as the only Massachusetts covered bridge east of the Connecticut River.
By 1950, a hundred years of wear on the bridge foundation required the weight limit be posted at 4 tons, down from the previous 10 ton limit. Soon the bridge was closed to truck traffic, and in 1958 it was closed to all traffic.
State Rep. Chester Waterous, for whom this bridge was named, and many others are credited with the replacement of another, much wider, covered bridge that was dedicated Nov. 4,1963.
The “trickery” alluded to in the 1845 bridge rebuild followed into 1958 when plans to replace the Waterous Bridge delayed its re-opening for five years.
A previously-published news article contained pictures of local businessmen standing in front of a sand pile that blocked access to the bridge in the early 1960s. The men held signs demanding it be rebuilt and a petition signed by hundreds of residents to that effect.
Town officials are hopeful this century’s five-year delay, to replace the current bridge with one more closely resembling the originals, will soon be over.