THE WORKS PROGRESS ADMINISTRATION (WPA) was an integral part of the “New Deal,” a series of federal programs that provided much-needed employment and that helped to build critical infrastructure during the Great Depression. Funding from the WPA’s Federal Art Project made possible the extraordinary equestrian monument of Revolutionary War hero Brig. Gen. Casimir Pulaski in Pulaski Park in Manchester.
The dedication of the Pulaski monument was celebrated with great fanfare on Aug. 21, 1938, but less than eight months earlier Manchester had marked the completion of a much larger “New Deal” project — the construction of a modern bridge across the Merrimack River in the center of the city. On Dec. 31, 1937 the steel-arch truss bridge was dedicated and named the Notre Dame Bridge. This elegant structure became an easily recognizable symbol of Manchester. (The bridge was demolished in 1989 and replaced by the current Bridge Street Bridge.)
The first bridge to span the Merrimack River in what would become Manchester was built as a toll bridge on approximately that same site in 1792. The main proprietor of the bridge company was Col. Robert McGregor, who owned a large farm at the western end of the bridge. McGregor had served as a colonel of the Continental Army during the Revolution. He was the grandson of Rev. James McGregor, the pioneering Scot-Irish Presbyterian minister who led the settlement of Derry and Londonderry, New Hampshire in 1719. In 1792, Robert McGregor’s land was located in the extreme eastern part of Goffstown, an area that would be annexed to Manchester in 1853. Across the river to the east was Derryfield, which would be renamed Manchester in 1810.
The new wooden bridge opened for traffic on Sept. 29, 1792. The investors named it the Amoskeag Bridge (not to be confused with the current Amoskeag Bridge upriver). Commonly known as McGregor’s Bridge, it was the only span across the Merrimack in this area for decades. Before the bridge was built, travelers had to row themselves across the river, or depend on small ferries operated by local entrepreneurs.
By 1815 McGregor’s Bridge had deteriorated to the point of being unusable. In 1824 a new bridge company was formed, which replaced the original bridge with a sturdier structure in 1825. In 1837 the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, which was building its mill yard on the east bank of the Merrimack, bought the bridge. The company abolished tolls for pedestrians in 1838.
This bridge was swept away in a flood in 1851. By this time two additional bridges crossing the Merrimack existed within a couple of miles — the Granite Bridge to the south (built in 1840 on the site of the current Granite Street Bridge), and the Amoskeag Falls Bridge to the north (built in 1842 at the location of the current Amoskeag Bridge). However, the transportation gap created by the loss of McGregor’s Bridge proved to be a major impediment to the development of the central portion of Manchester’s West Side where the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company owned hundreds of acres of land.
In 1880 the city of Manchester began building a new bridge where the old one had been, calling it the McGregor Bridge out of tradition. The structure cost an enormous sum for the time of $67,000, of which $7,000 was paid by the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company and the Stark Manufacturing Company, which had a textile operation in the Amoskeag’s mill yard. The double-decker, arch-truss bridge consisted of three spans with two piers and granite abutments. The upper deck was used for horse-drawn vehicles; while pedestrians, including mill workers, used the lower deck.
With the opening of the McGregor Bridge on Aug. 10, 1881 a new era began for the West Side. The Amoskeag built two steam-powered textile mills near the west end of the bridge — Mill No. 11 (now Mill West) in 1889, and the Coolidge Mill to its north in 1909. A vibrant neighborhood grew up nearby known as McGregorville. French-Canadian immigrants began to settle in the vicinity, attracted by work opportunities and the availability of land. The Gothic-Revival Roman Catholic church of Ste. Marie Parish, completed in 1899 on a bluff overlooking the two mills, became the nucleus of the emerging Notre Dame (Our Lady) neighborhood.
Next week: The demise of the McGregor Bridge, and the construction of the Notre Dame Bridge.