Faced with rising population and the demands of a growing industrial base, the City of Providence first sought voter approval for a public water supply in 1853. Successive referenda over the next decade resulted in a charter, granted by the Rhode Island General Assembly in 1864, for the creation of the Providence Water Company. This company, capitalized at $1 million, initially proposed an augmentation of the early 19th-century industrial impoundment of Central Pond in the East Providence village of Rumford that would create a large reservoir on the Ten Mile River. Water from this location would traverse the Seekonk River in conduits to the vicinity of Blackstone Park on Providence's East Side. Within two years the Providence Water Supply Company shelved this as its sole plan for a municipal water supply and appointed a committee to oversee a statewide survey to locate a "Supply of Pure Water to the City of Providence."
Under the direction of the committee's Chief Engineer J. Herbert Shedd, the committee investigated potential reservoir and pumping station sites that included Scott's Pond in the Lonsdale village of Lincoln (drawing water from the Blackstone River), Pawtucket (drawing water from Abbott Run), the above-described Ten Mile River location, and a site on the Pawtuxet River in Cranston . In Shedd's 1870 Engineer's Report, he recommended a site on the Pawtuxet River known to the Native Americans as Pettaconsett. This location, above the mouth of the Pocasset River and below the mill village of Pontiac was found to be “...the purest water we have found during this examination; and it is purer than that supplied to any city of which I happen to have record.") On February 15, 1869 the City’s voters approved the Pawtuxet River plan; the City soon acquired the necessary Cranston land.
The Providence Water Supply Company began construction of the Pettaconsett works in the spring of 1870. This included a pumping station with force mains carrying the water to a 50 million gallon reservoir constructed at Sockanosset Hill. From this reservoir, two 30" leading mains carried pressurized water northerly to Providence. Reservoir Avenue, named for the Sockanosset Hill location, was laid out along the path of the leading mains. On Thanksgiving Day 1871 the City of Providence celebrated the introduction of public water with a giant jet of water on Exchange Place in the center of the city.
The Pettaconsett works required the construction of a few culverts and a bridge in the immediate vicinity if the Sockanosset Reservoir as well as a crossing of the Pocasset River about a mile north of the reservoir. Financial records of the water company list vendors for the Sockanosset work as John J. Howe and David Hall. The bridge required for the crossing of Reservoir Avenue lists no specific builder, but it can be reasonably assumed that Howe and Hall also built the 23' single span iron plate girder bridge erected in 1871.5 The 30" leading mains were incorporated into the bridge abutments and remained in service until the spring freshet of 1886 washed out the original bridge superstructure and nearly cut off the water supply to Providence. Richard Bayles in his 1891 History of Providence County recounts that:
“... the bridge on Reservoir Avenue, over the Pocasset River, which supports the large mains, was washed away, and the safety of the pipes for a time was seriously endangered. When the bridge was rebuilt during the same year [later in 1886], these pipes were raised and permanently secured in a position beyond the liability of accident from another freshet."
The 1886 bridge, as photographed before its removal by the SBPR in the 1920s, was also a single span plate girder structure.
The Providence Water Supply Board, successor to the Providence Water Supply Company, abandoned the two 30" mains in the mid-1920s when the transition was made to the recently completed Scituate Reservoir. This abandonment provided an opportunity for the SBPR Bridge Department to design a bridge more suitable for the volume and loading of early 20th-century automobile traffic and to eliminate the periodic flooding that occurred because the two water mains had impeded the flow of the Pocasset River at the bridge crossing.
In 1917 the SBPR adopted a new type of reinforced concrete multi-beam bridge especially suited for bridges with low clearance over water bodies. This type, called a T-beam, had been first built in New Shoreham (Block Island) in the same year," In this type of bridge, the deck and a series of closely-spaced shallow beams are integrally cast. The shallow depth of the beams (in the case of Bridge 23, 32" deep), an increased clear span, and the removal of the 30" water mains allowed the SBPR to maintain the same 6-8' clearance over the water as the 1871 bridge while reducing significantly the danger of flooding.
In the design of this bridge, the SBPR correctly anticipated increasing traffic at this location over the coming decades. The 1927 bridge, built by the Henry M. Soule Company (Pawtucket, RI) between July and December of that year, had an overall width of 56' , providing a 40 '-wide roadway between curbs and-a-32' clear-span-The SBPR provided-footings, however, for an eventual overall width of 80'. This widening project was undertaken in 1950 and the bridge at present represents this mid-20th-century improvement. By the time of this mid-20th-century widening, the RI DPW was no longer routinely using the T-beam design for bridges of this span. Thus, the decision to widen in kind the earlier structure can be seen as an economical response to address higher traffic volume.