Looking Back with Aurore Eaton: The Notre Dame Bridge — a Manchester icon

North elevation of the Notre Dame Bridge in Manchester looking west from the east side of the Merrimack River, with the spans of the future Bridge Street Bridge visible. Photographed in 1988.

Beginning in 1881, a double-decker steel bridge spanned the Merrimack River in the center of Manchester. It was called the McGregor Bridge in honor of Col. Robert McGregor, who had been instrumental in constructing the original wooden bridge on the site in 1792.

The 1881 bridge was designed to handle pedestrians and horse carts, so when motorized vehicles became common, it needed to be replaced. The issue of building a new bridge was put aside again and again, but nature eventually intervened. Shortly before 6 p.m. on March 19, 1936, a large part of the McGregor Bridge was destroyed in the worst flood that had ever hit the city. That night the bridge was further damaged when it was hit by two enormous oil tanks that had been swept off an island south of the Amoskeag Dam.

Soon afterward a new steel arch truss bridge was designed for the site by the noted engineering firm of J. R. Worcester & Company of Boston. Construction began in October. By the end of the year a temporary cable suspension footbridge was erected just north of the site. The project was funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” The project also received money from the Federal Bureau of Public Roads, the State of New Hampshire, and the City of Manchester.

The bridge was built to be flood proof, with the roadway constructed 52 feet above normal water height, and 20 feet higher than the highwater mark of the March 1936 flood. The top of the steel arches stood 130 feet above the water level. The bridge included seven reinforced concrete arches stretching over the land areas, including one over the railroad tracks and Canal Street on the east side. This was a major improvement, as Bridge Street had originally intersected the railroad tracks, presenting a major hazard.

The naming of the bridge became a heated subject of debate. Several local organizations supported keeping the McGregor Bridge name in respect for historical precedent. A consortium of Manchester veterans’ organizations proposed calling it the Veterans Memorial Bridge, while a contingent of West Side residents requested that the bridge be named the Notre Dame Bridge after the Franco-American neighborhood that had sprung up near the textile mills located at the bridge’s west end.

Around 300 people attended a public meeting at City Hall on Aug. 11, 1937 to listen as impassioned speakers presented their cases in support of the proposed bridge names. The statement of George Beaudet seems to have stood out, as it was reported in detail in The Leader newspaper the next day: “The people of Notre Dame had fought for a long time to have a new bridge. We have prayed the Lord and the Board of Mayor and Aldermen for a bridge and the aldermen would have given it to us a few years ago, but for a few persons. Finally, the Lord answered our prayers and washed it away in the flood of 1936. Let’s settle this for once and for all time by naming it Notre Dame Bridge. As a group we do not make much money, but we pay our taxes.”

A few weeks later the aldermen voted to name the new structure the Notre Dame Bridge.

Following brief ceremonies, the new bridge was opened to pedestrian traffic on Dec. 9, and to vehicular traffic on Dec. 31, 1937. For over five decades the bridge’s elegant light green-painted steel arches served as an icon, or symbol, of the city and was often represented on advertising materials and other items.

By the early 1980s the bridge had deteriorated and was considered outdated. The decision was made to replace it with the two modern structures that exist today (known simply as the Bridge Street Bridge). The eastbound span was completed in January 1989, and the westbound span in June 1991.

When the old Notre Dame Bridge was toppled on Sept. 6, 1989, its dramatic demise was witnessed by thousands of people. Many who watched shared the sentiments of local resident Diane Lacourse, who was quoted in the Manchester Union Leader the next day: “Part of Manchester is just gone, wiped out, forgotten.”

Next week: More about WPA projects in New Hampshire during the Great Depression.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at auroreeaton@aol.com or at www.facebook.com/AuroreEatonWriter.