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Whittier Bridge OldThe John Greenleaf Whittier Memorial Bridge across the Merrimack River was dedicated in 1954 to honor the acclaimed 19th century poet and abolitionist from Haverhill. But when the Massachusetts Department of Public Works (MDPW) designed the span linking Amesbury and Newburyport, they had someone else in mind: Charles Milton Spofford.

The original John Greenleaf Whittier Bridge over the Merrimack River (top), now under construction. A rendering of the new Whittier Bridge (bottom), showing two parallel network tied-arch main spans. Each structure will carry four lanes plus shoulders and a shared-use path on the northbound structure. Photo/image credits: HNTB

The original John Greenleaf Whittier Bridge over the Merrimack River (top), now under construction. A rendering of the new Whittier Bridge (bottom), showing two parallel network tied-arch main spans. Each structure will carry four lanes plus shoulders and a shared-use path on the northbound structure.
Photo/image credits: HNTB

Spofford (1871-1963) was a founding partner of the Boston engineering firm Fay, Spofford & Thorndike and was affiliated with the Civil Engineering Department at his alma mater, MIT, for more than 60 years. One of the most influential bridge designers of the 20th century, Spofford’s signature project was the 1929 Lake Champlain Bridge between upstate New York and Vermont. There he introduced groundbreaking engineering techniques and a distinctive arch style that would be emulated in two dozen bridges across the country over the next half-century. Spofford used a similar design for the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges, which were built over the Cape Cod Canal in 1934 and 1935. The Bourne Bridge won the American Institute of Steel Construction’s Class “A” Award of Merit as the “Most Beautiful Steel Bridge” in 1934. The Sagamore was a sibling effort.

The Whittier, designed in-house by the MDPW, carried on Spofford’s design legacy from Lake Champlain. There he created the country’s first highway bridge using continuous-truss (beam) technology and cantilevered anchor spans, according to the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) for the Lake Champlain Bridge. Continuous trusses extended over multiple spans and piers, distributed stresses more efficiently, increased visual appeal, and reduced cost. Cantilevering created a graceful transition from the low-curving approach spans to the striking, high-arching center span.

The HAER said that the 25 bridges that “borrowed” the Lake Champlain design “reconcile the aesthetic impact of large, engineered structures on scenic environmental contexts and, at the same time . . . meet demands for structural and functional efficiency through continuous design.”

The Whittier is also one of three bridges in Massachusetts on the Federal Highway Administration’s Final List of Nationally and Exceptionally Significant Features of the Federal Interstate Highway System (the others are the Central Avenue Bridge in Needham and the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston).

After serving the region well for six decades, the Whittier Bridge has reached the end of its lifespan, and is in the midst of a three-year, $292 million replacement project as part of MassDOT’s Accelerated Bridge Program. However, the Spofford influence will remain: MassDOT’s design of the new bridge is reminiscent of the distinctive original, with two parallel tied-arch structures that retain the elegant arch and graceful lines that made the Whittier an architectural icon.

The new Whittier will be the first network tied arch bridge in Massachusetts and one of only seven such bridges in the U.S. One of the others is the “new” Lake Champlain Bridge, which replaced the original, demolished in 2009. The firm preparing the final design of the new Whittier, HNTB, designed five of the seven bridges, including the new Lake Champlain Bridge.

And just as in Charles Spofford’s day, there is innovation in the design: The highly-efficient, structurally redundant, network tied arch represents the current state-of-the-art approach to arch bridge design. The Whittier will also include the first shared-use path along a Massachusetts interstate. The path will be constructed on the northbound side to facilitate connections for bicyclists and pedestrians to nearby trails, attractions, and park-and-ride facilities.

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