Contoocook Covered Railroad Bridge, Hopkinton New Hampshire
Some of the earliest railroad bridges were timber structures because wood was abundant, cheap, and easy to work with. In 1830, Lewis Wernwag built the first wood railroad bridge in the United States for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad over the Monocacy River in Maryland. Within a short time, wood bridges were commonplace on America's growing network of railroads.
Presumably, hundreds of covered railroad bridges were built in the nineteenth century. In 1841, one English traveler noted, "The timber bridges of America are justly celebrated for their magnitude and strength. By their means the railways of America have spread widely and extended rapidly." By the late nineteenth century, most railroad bridges were being built of iron or steel. The Boston & Maine Railroad (B&M) was an exception, they continued to build timber bridges into the early twentieth century. The Contoocook Railroad Bridge is one of eight surviving covered wood railroad bridges in the country and an excellent example of the double-web Town lattice truss design used by the Boston & Maine Railroad in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In the late 1700s, Eliphalet Poor established a mill near this site. By the early nineteenth century, Contoocook was a small industrial hamlet with numerous saw, grist and silk mills. There was a bridge at this location prior to 1790, when the town voted to repair it. That bridge, known as Poor's Bridge, was rebuilt in 1794, and presumably numerous other times prior to 1853, when a covered bridge was built here to carry vehicular traffic. The present stone-faced concrete arch highway bridge replaced that bridge, which stood adjacent to the Contoocook Railroad Bridge for nearly half a century, in 1936.
In 1848 the Concord & Claremont Railroad was chartered to build a 60-mile line through the Contoocook River Valley. The company erected covered bridges at several major river crossings, including Contoocook Village.
Most modern sources report 1849 as the date of construction for the present bridge; however, according to a report of the Concord & Claremont Railroad published in 1884, the bridge at Contoocook was a covered bridge "of the Child's plan" which "has been damaged some by ice and water, and sags in the center. It is very old, and should be carefully attended to and rebuilt soon as practical." While no documentation has been found specifically mentioning the construction of the present bridge, in 1888 the Boston & Maine Railroad took over the Concord & Claremont Railroad and immediately set about upgrading various parts of the line. In 1889, the railroad built the present double-web Town lattice truss covered bridge. Although Boston & Maine Annual Reports 1891-1893 do not specifically mention this bridge, the 1914 I.C.C. Valuation Survey lists 1889 as the date of its construction.
Historic photographs of the bridge in the collection of the New Hampshire Antiquarian Society in Hopkinton clearly show two very different covered bridges here at different points in time. The first has a steeply pitched roofline, tight eaves and arched portals; the second is the present bridge with its low-pitched roof and squared portal. The present bridge very closely matches other timber truss covered bridges built by the Boston & Maine Railroad during the period from 1888 to 1911 when Jonathan Parker Snow was bridge engineer. Despite the lack of written documentation, there is no question that the present bridge dates to this time period.
The Contoocook Railroad Bridge was knocked off its footings twice, once during the flood of 1936 and once during the hurricane of 1938. Both times, the bridge survived intact and was hauled back up onto the abutments.
In 1989, the Town of Hopkinton transferred ownership of the covered bridge to the state for maintenance and preservation. Although the state does not have funds available for this purpose, they are able to accept donations from the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges and oversee volunteer preservation efforts. In 2000, the Contoocook Riverway Association was formed to raise money for village improvements, including restoration of the depot and Contoocook Railroad Bridge.
Surviving Covered Railroad Bridges in the United States
Contoocook Bridge Merrimack County, NH 1889 157' Town lattice truss B&MRR
Sulphite Bridge Merrimack County, NH 1896 180' Pratt deck truss B&MRR
Shoreham Bridge Addison County, VT 1897 109' Howe truss Rutland RR
Clark's Bridge Grafton County, NH 1904 116' Howe truss M&WR RR
Wright's Bridge Sullivan County, NH 1906 124' Town lattice truss B&MRR
Pier Bridge Sullivan County, NH 1907 217' Town lattice truss B&MRR
Fisher Bridge Lamoille County, VT 1908 98' Town lattice truss SJ&LC RR
Harpole Bridge Whitman County, WA 1922 163' boxed Howe truss Great Northern RR