The Harvard Bridge is a steel haunched girder bridge between Back Bay, Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, US, carrying Massachusetts Avenue (Route 2A) over the Charles River. It is the longest bridge over the Charles River at 659.82m. It is locally known for being measured, inaccurately, in the idiosyncratic unit of length called the smoot.
After several legislative attempts fraught with antipathy on the part of Boston, it was built jointly by Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, between 1887 and 1891. It originally included a swing span. The bridge was revised over the years until its superstructure was completely replaced in the late 1980s due to unacceptable vibration and the collapse of a similar bridge. The bridge was named for the Reverend John Harvard.
In the Acts of 1874, the Massachusetts Legislature passed Chapters 175 and 314 to authorize the construction of a bridge between Boston and Cambridge. Nothing further happened until 1882, when a follow-up law, Acts of 1882, Chapter 155, with more specifics was enacted. The location was expressed as
The bridge was to have a draw with an opening of at least 38ft. Boston did not like this Act, mainly because it did not provide for an overhead crossing of the Grand Junction Branch of the Boston and Albany Railroad. So nothing happened until the Act was amended by Acts of 1885, Chapter 129, which changed the draw to a clear opening of at least 36ft and no more, until the other bridges below the proposed location were required to have a larger opening. Still nothing happened, until the City of Cambridge petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature in 1887 to compel Boston to proceed. This resulted in Acts of 1887, Chapter 282, which was mandatory for both cities. It required that each city pay for half the bridge, and allowed Boston to raise up to US$250,000 for this purpose, in excess of its debt limit. This implied an estimated cost of US$500,000 (US$ with inflation) for the bridge.
The Act authorized a commission to build the bridge. The commission was to consist of the mayors of Boston and Cambridge plus one additional person to be appointed by the mayors. If the mayors failed to appoint a third commissioner, the governor was to do it for them. The mayors of Boston and Cambridge, Hugh O'Brien and William E. Russell, appointed Leander Greeley of Cambridge as the third commissioner. This changed over time.
Mayor of Boston Mayor of Cambridge Third Commissioner
1887–1888 Hugh O'Brien William E. Russell Leander Greeley
1889–1890 Thomas N. Hart Henry H. Gilmore
1891 Nathan Matthews, Jr. Alpheus B. Alger Leander Greeley (died 15 February 1891 or 16 February 1891)
George W. Gale
The expectations of having built the bridge were clear.
Postcard showing Harvard Bridge, looking toward Cambridge and MIT sometime between 1916 and 1924
The Acts of 1887 declared the bridge to be a wooden pile structure with stone pavement for the first 200ft because the Charles River Embankment extension was expected to take that space, but that was changed such that the whole distance would be of iron spans on stone piers. The general plans were approved on 14 July 1887. The engineers were William Jackson (Boston City Engineer), John E. Cheney (assistant Boston City Engineer), Samuel E. Tinkham (assistant engineer), and Nathan S. Brock (assistant engineer at bridge).
The subsurface conditions at the bridge location are extreme. Much of Boston is underlain with clay, but the situation at the bridge is exacerbated by a fault which roughly follows the path of the Charles River itself. From a depth of approximately 200 to 300ft below existing ground, is a very dense till composed of gravel and boulders with a silt-clay matrix. Above that to approximately 30ft below the surface is Boston blue clay (BBC). Over this are thin layers of sand, gravel, and fill. The BBC is overconsolidated up to a depth of approximately 70ft.
The substructure originally consisted of two masonry abutments and twenty-three masonry piers, as well as one pile foundation with a fender pier for the draw span. The superstructure was originally twenty-three cantilevered fixed spans and suspended spans, of plate girders with one swing span. The Boston abutment rests on vertical piles, while the Cambridge end is directly on gravel.
Originally, the bridge was built across the Charles River connecting West Chester Park, in Boston, with Front Street, in Cambridge. This is now called Massachusetts Avenue on both sides of the river. As originally built, the total length between centers of bearings on abutments was 2164 ft 9in with a draw 48 ft 4in wide between centers. The width of the bridge was 69 ft 4in except near and on the draw.
The bridge as built was composed of fixed and suspended spans roughly 75ft long and piers 90ft apart, center to center. The span lengths alternated between 75and. The longer spans were cantilevered, while the shorter spans were suspended between the cantilevers.
The original roadway contained two lanes for horse-drawn vehicles and two street car tracks, for a total width of 51.0ft. There were also two 9ft sidewalks. The original roadway and sidewalk stringers were of wood, with an approximately 1.25in thick covering of asphalt on the sidewalk and a 2in spruce wearing surface on the roadway.
The exception was at the swing span, which was 48ft wide. This span was approximately 149ft long, and sat on a wooden pier. It was a double-cantilevered, electrically-driven structure also carrying a bridge caretaker's house.
The bridge opened on 1 September 1891. The original cost of construction to 1 March 1892 was US$510,642.86. This is equivalent to US$ with inflation.
The bridge was named for the Reverend John Harvard, for whom Harvard University is also named, rather than after the university itself. Other names suggested included Blaxton, Chester, Shawmut, and Longfellow.
Possibly due to its proximity to the bridge, there have been a number of tales reported at MIT as to how the bridge came to be named "Harvard", all apocryphal. The Harvard Bridge was first constructed in 1891. MIT did not move to its current location adjacent to the bridge until 1916.
Maintenance and events
Harry Houdini jumps from the bridge (1908)
In 1898, 3ft-wide bicycle lanes were installed next to each curb. In 2011 the City of Boston finally connected these lanes to its own bike lanes.
According to a marker near the southeast end of the bridge, Harry Houdini performed one of his "well known escapes" from this bridge on 1 May 1908. Other sources have it as 30 April 1908.
The bridge was declared unsafe in 1909, requiring all of the iron and steel to be replaced. The draw was elevated slightly and the trolley rails were replaced as well.
When the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) took control of the bridge in 1924, they rebuilt much of the bridge superstructure. They replaced the wooden stringers with steel "I" beams, topped wooden deck elements with concrete and brick, and replaced the street car rails. Structural steel hangers replaced wrought iron. The swing span was converted into two 75ft fixed spans the same width as the rest of the bridge. The wooden pier was heavily modified with concrete and stone to make it resemble the other piers, increasing the number of stone piers from 23 to 24.
Heavy traffic at the Mass Ave and Memorial Drive intersection on the Cambridge end of the bridge led to the construction of an underpass in 1931.
The bridge was formerly referred to as the "Xylophone Bridge" because of the sound its wooden decking made when traffic traveled over it. This decking was replaced in 1949 with 3in concrete-filled "I-beam lok" grating topped with a 2.25in thick bituminous wearing surface. At this time, all bearings were replaced, and the trolley car tracks were removed, as were granite blocks. The trolley car poles were reused for street lights. Ramps between the bridge and the under-construction Storrow Drive were added.
The 1924 sidewalk slabs were replaced by precast, prestressed slabs in 1962. The fifteen expansion dams were replaced or repaired in 1969.
Engineering study, 1971-1972
The Harvard Bridge is decorated with both serious and comical statements of art.
An engineering study was performed by the Metropolitan District Commission in 1971-1972 due to complaints by bridge users of excessive vibration. The bridge was found to be understrength for its load. Before the final study was complete, the recommendation was to place a load limit of 8ST per axle and a total of 15ST per vehicle, or to restrict trucks to the interior lanes, where the bridge was stronger. A 25ST limit was imposed.
Suggestions made included strengthening the existing structure by adding either struts or plates to make the existing four beams along the length of the bridge into a stiffening truss, or to replace the superstructure with a new one, made of either steel or concrete, which would be up to current standards. The recommendation was to replace the superstructure with one weighing approximately the same in order to reuse the piers, which were in good condition.
The reasoning was that the cost of a new structure could be predicted much more easily than the cost of repairing and reinforcing the existing bridge. The resulting new bridge would be of known materials and quality, such as ductile structural steel rather than brittle wrought iron, and rated at AASHO HS-20. Repairing the existing structure would leave old wrought iron of uncertain quality and condition standing, and would not bring the design up to (then) current standards. Detailed engineering calculations were included. The price was estimated at 2.5 million to 3 million U.S. dollars (US$ to US$ with inflation).
The action taken based on this study was to establish load restrictions on the bridge, 15ST in the outer lanes, 25ST on the inner lanes. This was expanded in 1979 to a flat limit of 15ST on the whole bridge.
Superstructure replacement, 1980s
After the failure of the Mianus River Bridge at Greenwich, Connecticut in 1983, the Harvard Bridge was shut down and inspected because it contained similar elements, specifically the suspended spans. Traffic was restricted to the inner two lanes due to the discovery of two failed hangers on span 14. A few days later, all trucks and buses were banned from the bridge.
In 1986, a report was published containing the plan to replace the superstructure on the existing supports. Alternatives considered were very similar to the 1972 report, and were similarly decided. Structural modifications included an upgrade from four longitudinal girders to six of the same shape and replacement of a stairway with a handicapped pedestrian ramp on the Boston end of the bridge.
Ramp "B", from southbound bridge lanes to eastbound Storrow Drive, caused traffic to merge onto Storrow Drive from the left (high speed) lanes using a short acceleration lane, causing safety issues. The MDC requested elimination of this ramp. Compared to overall bridge traffic of 30,000 vehicles per day, traffic on ramp B was found to be low, approximately 1,500 vehicles per day with a peak of 120 vehicles per hour.
The historic value of the bridge was considered significant, so the plan was to make the replacement superstructure appear similar, with similar railing and lighting. In order to document the pre-existing structure, a Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) would be prepared.
Pier 12 was exhibiting inappropriate movement and was scheduled for reinforcement.
The work would be done in two phases. Phase 1 would reinforce the downstream side of the bridge to allow MBTA bus traffic, and was expected to take 5 months. Most of this effort would be spent on the underside of the bridge and would not affect existing traffic. Phase 2 would replace the entire superstructure and was expected to take three construction seasons to implement. Cost was estimated to be (US$ with inflation). Phase 1 finished in 1987, and Phase 2 in 1990.
In the Fall of 2014, the Charles River Conservancy announced that an anonymous donor would fund an upgrade of the street lights for both the roadway and both sidewalks on the bridge. The new roadway and aesthetic lighting will be installed in 2015, highlighting the smoot marks along the sidewalk. The design was selected after a competition won by Miguel Rosales of Rosales + Partners. The light posts will be located 30sm apart.
"It will provide safe lighting for pedestrians and drivers, and the elements of design on the bridge will be pulled out and emphasized. It will become a really beautiful bridge," said Renata von Tscharner, founder and president of the Charles River Conservancy.
Bridge length measurement
Smoot mark 210, east side of the bridge
The Harvard Bridge is measured, locally, in smoots.
In 1958, members of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity at MIT measured the bridge's eastern sidewalk by using that year's shortest pledge, Oliver Smootnominally, 5 ft 7in tallas a measuring stick. Years after this stunt, Smoot became president of the American National Standards Institute and later president of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
Markers painted at 10sm intervals give the bridge's length 364.4 smoots long, "plus one ear". Originally this read "plus or minus one ear"representing measurement uncertaintyTavernor, Robert, Smoot’s Ear: the Measure of Humanity (Yale University Press, 2007; paperback edition 2008), ISBN 978-0-300-12492-7, Prefacebut over the years the words "or minus" disappeared. The marks are repainted twice each year by members of the fraternityoriginally surreptitiously and later openly.
During the major reconstruction in the 1980s, the new sidewalks were divided into smoot-length slabs rather than the standard six feet, and the smoot markings were painted on the new deck. Officials' original determination to omit the smoot markings from the reconstructed bridge, and to scrupulously prevent the fraternity from repainting them, evaporated when it was realized that police routinely used the smoot marking as reference points in accident reports.
The nominal length of 364.4 smoots (from two designated points at the bridge's ends) corresponds to about 2030 feet or 620 m, somewhat less than the bridge's published length of 660m. 1.7018 m/smoot = 387.7 smoots one ear. The smoot marks could be revised to reflect that, perhaps by adding negative smoots southeastward, leaving the traditional markings unchanged to facilitate backwards compatibility with existing uses of the marks by the police and others.-->