Needham History Center & Museum Needham History Center & Museum, Needham Massachusetts 02492

Many Rivers to Cross…

The recent re-opening of Cook’s Bridge on Central Avenue – and the traffic headaches while it was closed – has us thinking about the importance of our local bridges.  Cook’s Bridge, the oldest of them, was first built in 1720 on land belonging to Captain Robert Cook.  The current structure, recently reconstructed, dates to 1857, and is the last bridge built by the noted stonemason, Nathan Crafts. Crafts was, sadly, killed in an accident on the bridge during its construction. The bridge stands (more than 150 years later!) as a monument to his work, and a remembrance of the time when stonework was the province of skilled masons, before the Civil War and the rise of professional civil engineering.  Crafts built several bridges in the area; it is thought that Fisher’s Bridge (Central Avenue to Dover) is also an example of his work.


If it seems to you that the Charles River is everywhere you go in Needham, you’d be right. Needham is in a loop, and nearly every exit from town requires you to cross a bridge. In fact, unless you are going to Wellesley via Great Plain Avenue, it is relatively difficult to leave Needham without crossing water. And it was worse when we still owned Wellesley.

There are now nine bridges out of Needham (there were once eleven, when Wellesley was still the West Parish). Two are named after the roads that run over them; the rest are named for the families that once owned the land (and who were often responsible for the upkeep of the bridge).  The dates below establish when the bridge was first recorded, though in some cases (Newell’s Bridge, Fisher’s Bridge, and Day’s Bridge) they were in place long before their first mention in the town records.  Most started as wooden foot bridges, which were then rebuilt as stone bridges in the 19th century.  Can you name them all?

Cook’s Bridge – Central Ave to Newton Upper Falls (first built 1720)
Highland Ave Bridge, to Newton (1875)
Kendrick’s Bridge – Kendrick St to Newton (1716)
Lyon’s Bridge (the “New Bridge”) – Greendale Ave to Dedham (1740)
Dedham Ave Bridge to Dedham (1873)
Day’s Bridge – Chestnut St to Dover (before 1750)
Fisher’s Bridge – Central Ave to Dover (before 1770)
Newell’s Bridge – South St. to Dover (before 1770)
Pierce’s Bridge – Charles River St. to Dover / South Natick (1855)

But wait! – there’s one more. The one of the earliest crossings into Needham does not have a name.  In fact, until it was recently expanded, you probably never even noticed it. The southeastern end of Great Plain Avenue crosses into Dedham without even a “Welcome to ” sign. The road runs alongside a still and peaceful stretch of the Charles. The town line is formed by an ancient canal, known once as the Great (or Long) Ditch, dug in the 17th century to help drain the Broad Meadows. The Ditch runs under the road, meeting the river just under the bridge; it then flows away to the north, rejoining the Charles in West Roxbury, near Millennium Park. (All that marshy stuff you see from the train between Hersey and WRox stations is the Broad Meadows). If you look at an aerial map, you will see that the Meadows is crossed by numerous ditches, all part of a drainage system hand-dug in the 1600s. But I digress, as usual.

The “Great Ditch” and drainage system (1600s)
The ditch system was dug in the mid-1600s to cut off a loop in the Charles River, and to drain the marshy Broad Meadows for use as cattle grazing land.  Farmers in early Dedham had come from the flood-prone English counties of East Anglia, and had been taught the techniques of ditches and drainage by the Dutch.  The Great Ditch is still an open canal. The smaller ditches that fed into it are mostly silted up, but can be seen as the darker green lines that cross the meadows. The road at the bottom is Great Plain Avenue, where it crosses into Dedham.  The Highway on the left margin is Route 128, and the straight line across the top is the Commuter Rail.  (Image taken from Google Earth)

Great Ditch 2

The Great Ditch system (dug in the 1640s). Click to enlarge.