Old Washington Bridge, circa 1829-1885

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Old Washington Bridge, circa 1829-1885


Image of the Old Washington Bridge looking southeast towards East Providence from the Providence side of the bridge.

The Washington Bridge was damaged during a storm in 1867. At the time of that storm, plans had already been underway to widen the draw span at the east end of the bridge. The bridge was closed while repairs and improvements were made. It was permanently closed on June 23, 1885, demolished, and replaced with a steel truss swing bridge.

The Washington Bridge, which spans the Seekonk River between Providence and East Providence, was first opened to traffic in 1793. Since then, there have been four more Washington Bridges in roughly the same location. The original wooden bridge was destroyed by fire and replaced by another wooden bridge, which was replaced in the mid-nineteenth century.  This bridge lasted until 1885, when a first Washington Bridge Commission was formed in 1883 (Public Law 1883, ch. 349) to develop a structure to replace the previous wood structure. It, too, was eventually replaced by a steel structure strong enough to carry a streetcar line. In addition, the new bridge also featured a swing span that permitted boats to pass through.

In 1920 the General Assembly established a second Washington Bridge Commission to investigate the feasibility of constructing a higher-level bridge that could accommodate the significantly increased volume of  maritime. traffic. The Commission worked from 1920 to 1924, at which time it submitted a final report to the General Assembly. In 1927, the Commission was directed to proceed with construction. A contract for design was awarded to the Merrittt-Chapman and Scott Corporation. The Army Corps of Engineers approved the Commission's design for a drawbridge with a horizontal clearance of 100 feet. Flanking the drawbridge on either side were to be three concrete arches with spans of 105 feet each, and adjacent to these spans on the shores, there were to be three concrete arches with spans of 89 feet each. The open-spandrel construction method that was used for the six arches was designed to minimize the cost of materials.

For the final design, the Commission employed the services of two New Yorkers, consulting engineer Clarence W. Hudson and architect Carl L. Otto (who embodied the "City Beautiful" movement of the early 20th century.)  Stone facing on the arches, rounded bridge piers and other ornamentation added beauty to the bridge's symmetrical design.

In November 1930, the American Society of Civil Engineers' Civil Engineering magazine described the bridge as  "a product of a combination of the highest type of engineering and architectural skill, and will long stand as an object of utility and beauty of which the people of Rhode Island may well be proud."

The open-spandrel, reinforced concrete arch bridge was a popular style for early 20th century multiple-span highways bridges. When completed, the fifth Washington Bridge stretched 549 meters (1,800 feet) in length, and at 25.9 meters (85 feet) in width.  Rather than a massive, concrete-filled structure or solid spandrel walls, the bridge incorporated 6 separate arch ribs, 12 arch spans, and 1,512 vertical columns supporting the roadway deck. At the time, this method was more cost effective because it used less concrete and took advantage of local labor and materials.

After two years of construction, the Washington Bridge opened to traffic on September 25, 1930. The $3.5 million cost of the bridge was financed through the sale of bonds.

Dana Alexander Nolfe, "The Space Between" Public Roads, Vol. 68, no. 2, Sept/Oct 2004.

Related Materials:

The State Archives also holds records dating back to the first Washington Bridge, including financial records, hearing records, and a number of sketches; its administration in mid-century, and the builiding of the fourth bridge in the 1880s - 1890s. In addition, the State Archives also has in its custody a collection of lantern slides from the State Board of Public Roads containing  images of the various aspects of the bridge's construction (1927-1935.) See Department of Public Works (RG37). Finally, the General Assembly records include annual reports submitted by the Commission. (1995-461  Bridges:  Maps and Reports)

Washington Bridge Society Records, 1792-1838

Washington Bridge Society, Account Reports, 1840 - 1861

Washington Bridge Commission, Damage Claim Petitions, 1890-1891

Records Created by Washington Bridge Commission




Rhode Island State Archives


c. 1829-1885


Copyright is in the public domain unless otherwise specified. We reserve the right to restrict reproduction of materials due to preservation concerns.





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"Old Washington Bridge, circa 1829-1885 ," in Virtual Exhibits, Item #504, http://sos.ri.gov/virtualarchives/items/show/504 (accessed August 24, 2019).