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Thursday, February 26, 2015

February 26, 2015: Western Mass. Histories: The Bridge of Flowers

[It’s not the Boston area, and it’s not quite the Berkshires, so the rest of Western Massachusetts tends to get short shrift in our images and narratives of the state. Well, no longer! In this week’s series, I’ll highlight five Western Mass. histories and stories, examples of how much this part of the state has to offer our collective memories. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and other connections!]
On three compelling stages to the history of the Shelburne Falls landmark.
I’ve written a couple of prior posts about historic sites that developed in direct connection to the late 19th and early 20th century era of local trolley railways: Charlottesville (VA)’s Fry’s Spring’s period as a “trolley park”; and one of the most popular such trolley parks, Newton (MA)’s Norumbega Park. (Both Boston’s Revere Beach and New York’s Coney Island are in that conversation as well.) Although the Bridge of Flowers is now known as a pedestrian bridge, it began life as a trolley bridge, built in 1908 to allow the cars of the Shelburne Falls & Colrain Street Railway to journey between the towns of Shelburne and Buckland. Although these trolleys carried heavy freight and goods as well as passengers, they nonetheless also allowed for residents to travel much more easily and frequently between these communities, creating in the process the kinds of communal and social experiences for which the trolley parks became so famous.
The railway went bankrupt in 1927 and the bridge seemed destined for unuse and decay; but thanks to a couple significant subsequent efforts, the bridge has instead continued to offer such social experiences ever since. In a 1928 letter to the editor of a local paper, Shelburne’s Clara Barnard quoted her friend, the late Antoinette Burnham; Burnham, collaborating with her invalid husband Walter, had developed an idea to turn what could be an industrial eyesore into “a bridge of beauty.” Later that year, the recently founded Shelburne Falls Women’s Club sponsored the project, and in the spring of 1929 loam and fertilizer were added to the bridge, providing the starting points for the first blossomings of what has become an annual Bridge of Flowers. To my mind, this inspiring moment represents a local, practical version of the City Beautiful Movement, and indeed can be seen as an embodiment of that movement’s emphasis on bringing natural beauty to all Americans, regardless of their geographical location and social status.
If the idea behind the Bridge of Flowers was designed to be perennial, however, the initial building of the bridge had not been, and a 1975 Hampshire College study determined that the bridge had deteriorated dangerously by that time. A subsequent 1979 engineering study recommended repairs that would cost nearly $600,000, but Shelburne Falls and its neighboring towns were up to the challenge: a combined effort of the Women’s Club, the Shelburne Falls Fire Department, and numerous private donations, coupled with a sizeable Massachusetts Small Cities Community Development Block Grant, yielded the full required amount, and the restoration efforts began in May 1983. My favorite detail about those efforts is that every plant from the bridge was removed and cared for in private gardens throughout the restorations, so that they and the bridge could be returned to full bloom once it was safe and ready once more. No idea, no matter how inspiring or beautiful, can be sustained without continued care and commitment, a reality potently illustrated by the beautiful Western Mass landmark that is the Bridge of Flowers.
Last history tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Histories and stories from your home you’d highlight?

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