Rolling Bridge Park’s Red Sculpture

After publishing last month’s post on the beams left standing from the old Central Artery, Steve Hollinger of The Fort Pointer site on X alerted me to another example of Boston’s “old bones.” This one comes from the Old Colony Railroad Bridge that has been preserved in the South End’s aptly named Rolling Bridge Park.

Rolling Bridge Park, Old Colony Railroad Bridge, South Boston, Fort Point Channel, drawbridge

The channel runs from Boston Harbor to the East Berkeley Street (or the Moakley Courthouse to Gillette Shaving Headquarters) In the Fort Point Channel’s history, 12 bridges, most of them drawbridges, spanned its length. The drawbridges went up and down, retracted, swung to one side, and pivoted.

The Bridges of Fort Point Channel

From north to south, they list of Fort Point Channel bridges includes:

  1. Northern Avenue Bridge (1908)
  2. Evelyn Moakley Bridge (1996)
  3. Congress Street Bridge (1874, 1930)
  4. Summer Street Bridge (1900)
  5. Mount Washington Avenue Bridge (1855)
  6. Dorchester Avenue Bridge (1895, 2005) formerly the Free Bridge (1828)
  7. Cove Street Bridge (1901)
  8. Old Colony Railroad Bridge (1898, 2004)
  9. Broadway Bridge (1875, 1914)
  10. Wye Connector (1984, 2000)
  11. New Broadway Bridge (1998)
  12. West 4th Street Bridge (1988), formerly the Dover Street Bridge (1887), South Boston Bridge (1805)

Locking the Drawbridges

Over time, that number has dwindled to six usable bridges, which are bolded above. (My count could be wrong but that’s what the map shows.) None of the surviving drawbridges move; instead, they have been locked in place and paved over. The Northern Avenue Bridge still stands, of course, but it was declared unsafe and has been closed for many years.

(I understand why these bridges were removed. Having grown up in Somerset, MA, I frequently encountered the old Brightman Street Bridge being raised. It allowed passage on the Taunton River for coal and oil tankers as well as sail boats with tall masts. A raised bridge could play havoc with your schedule if you needed to cross the Taunton River to Fall River or back again. Note: The Old Colony Railroad served southeastern Massachusetts, including Fall River.)

The Old Colony Railroad Bridge

The biggest bridge on the channel, the Old Colony Railroad Bridge was a six-track, triple-leaf, counter-weighted, Scherzer rolling-lift, bascule drawbridge. (Phew! That’s a lot of adjectives.)

Old Colony Railroad Bridge, Fort Point Channel, bascule drawbridge

The Old Colony Railroad Bridge in its heyday

The Old Colony Railroad Bridge was the largest of its kind and the widest rail bridge in the world when it was built in 1898, as part of the huge Boston South Terminal/South Station project. When in operation, the leaves would rise and roll back, opening the channel for ships to pass through. The bridge handled Boston’s South Shore and South Coast rail services well in to the 1950s.

Although the enormous structure was demolished in 1999, local artists and activists, in partnership with the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, preserved one of the six original rolling segments.

Now painted red, this section—one of the massive counterweights—stands in a park near its original location. Fred Yalouris, Chief of Architecture for CA/Tunnel, embraced this project and worked with the local group to preserve the counterweight.

Why So Many Bridges?

According to one of the very informative signs in Rolling Bridge Park:

“The bridges of Boston’s Fort Point Channel illustrate a colorful part of the city’s commercial and industrial history. In the late 19th century, the Fort Point Channel was one of Boston’s important waterways, serving shipping in the channel itself and in South Bay. But the channel also separated the main part of Boston from South Boston, so many bridges spanned it in order that goods and people as well as the railroads entering the city through South Boston could cross the channel.

The Fort Point Channel bridges all opened to allow ships to pass. Most of the bridges were drawbridges, some of them bascule bridges where one end was counterbalanced by weights on the other end but several bridges pivoted to open. The number of bridges over the channel created a conflict between shipping and land interests and users complained if the bridges were open too often, but shippers were annoyed if ships were impeded by closed bridges.

During the 1890s, for example, nearly 19,000 vessels, steamers, sailing boats, and tugs passed through the Congress Street Bridge alone, carrying lumber, coal, cotton, spices, dye, fruit, shoes, beer, and cattle, among other cargo.

As the 20th Century progressed, the Fort Point Channel became a less important waterway, South Bay was filled in, the movable bridges across the channel were legally permitted to remain closed, and the new bridges do not open. The remaining vestiges of the old bridges, however, provide a reminder of the city’s past.”

NOTE: For those who would like to learn more about the history of Fort Point Channel and its bridges, I recommend Boston By Foot’s walking tour: Fort Point and Seaport: The Evolution of the South Boston Waterfront

Rolling Bridge Park

Looking more like the muscle of commercial Boston than the city’s old bones, the counterweight stands in the center of Rolling Bridge Park in South Boston, which is on the Harborwalk. On the day I visited, the park held only two occupants: me and a cranky Canada Goose.

The brick-red counterweight looks something like an Alexander Calder stabile sculpture: a semicircle on top of a rectangle. It reminded me of his work “Flamingo” in Chicago, only more muscular. In reality, however, this very large piece of metal made up just one small section of the enormous Old Colony Railroad Bridge. In the photo below, you can see it outlined in red at the bottom of the span on the right.

Old Colony Railroad Bridge, Fort Point Channel, bascule drawbridge, Rolling Bridge Park

The counterweight

How to Get There

Rolling Bridge Park
61 Dorchester Ave., Boston MA 02127

Now comes the hard part: giving directions on how to reach Rolling Bridge Park, which is more complicated than it seems.

You GPS will take you to the address on Dorchester Avenue. There you will find yourself facing a USPS facility with a parking lot with a gated entrance and a Central Artery Tunnel Vent Building. You can’t go there. The Gillette parking lot takes up the right side.

The left holds the gated entrance to a private company’s parking lot. You can see the park and the counterweight but it appears to be unreachable across a remainder of the South Bay. The photo below gives you a good orientation. The sculpture is in a circle at the bottom.

Gillette Shaving Headquarters, Fort Point Channel, South Bay, Rolling Bridge Park

An aerial view

DO NOT turn back and go over the James M. Kelly bridge to approach from the other side. This will take you under Route 93 with the associated tangle of on- and off-ramps. Instead, turn around and find a place to park on one of streets in South Boston. Then walk back down Dorchester Avenue. You will see that going to the end of the park takes you across the water to reach the counterweight.

If this sounds confusing, try looking at a Google map and seeing the park pinned in the middle of the water. But my directions work. Trust me.

If you go, say hello to the Canada Goose.