Functional and Fanciful

by Janice Hecht

Sep 9, 2019

In our travels around the state this summer, I got to see a few of my favorite Connecticut bridges.

The earliest inhabitants of Connecticut, emerging 10,000 years ago, used the long, north-to-south rivers of the region for navigation and extension of their trading routes. But to travel east to west, they had to cross the wide rivers, and did so by building birch dugout canoes and paddling across.

In modern times, thanks to the ingenuity of engineers, we enjoy the convenience of bridges to transport us across obstacles like waterways, valleys, railways and other roads. With dozens of rivers and their tributaries and four major highways in the state, Connecticut has hundreds of bridges, from the earliest arch and beam structures to the most modern steel suspension and truss bridges.

One of the fascinations in the town of Mystic in southeastern Connecticut is the Mystic River Bascule Bridge, which crosses the river on Main Street. It carries vehicle and foot traffic directly into the tourist district of town but also opens regularly to allow passage for boats along the river.

Bridge

A bascule bridge is a drawbridge that uses counterweights to balance the span of the bridge through its upward swing. (The earliest bascule bridges were built in medieval times using counterweights and winches.) Designed by former Otis Elevator Co. chief engineer Thomas Ellis Brown and built in 1920, the Mystic bridge employs two 230-ton, concrete-filled counterweights to lift the 218-foot span of the bridge to a vertical position, driven by two 1,400-pound, 40 horsepower direct current motors. For safety, the span is greased and inspected every 100 openings and every two weeks in winter.

From May 1 to Oct. 31, the bridge opens hourly during daylight at 40 minutes past the hour and on demand. It carries about 11,800 cars a day, so one would imagine the bridge openings would annoy drivers, but at least for visitors, it offers a pleasant diversion. The clang of the warning bell summons people to the closed street to watch the slow rise of the bridge span. Conveniently, an ice cream shop sits right at the bridge’s downtown end, so you can enjoy a treat while watching the show.

Perhaps less of an engineering feat but wildly more whimsical is the Frog Bridge of Willimantic (within the town of Windham). Built in 2000, this 476-foot span across the Willimantic River derives its name from the bronze statues of four 11-foot frogs at either end of the bridge. The frogs perch atop giant spools of thread, which seems odd until you realize the town was once a textile mill town. (The bridge is more mundanely called the Thread City Crossing.) But why frogs?

The reason dates back to the Great Windham Frog Fight of 1754. The French and Indian War broke out in May of that year, and tensions ran high in the frontier town of Windham. At the same time a drought threatened the crops of the farming community. Shortly after midnight one hot and muggy night in June, the townspeople woke to a horrific shrieking sound. Some thought the sounds were the war whoops of attacking Indians. Some thought they were the trumpets of Judgment Day. Brave militiamen ventured out to fire muskets into the night.

At dawn all was quiet, and a scouting party ventured out and discovered hundreds of dead bullfrogs littering the landscape around a pond. Because a drought had dried up all of Windham’s standing water, only a puddle remained at the bottom of this pond. Frogs from across the area had descended on that one remaining wet spot and fought over it. What the townspeople heard was not the war cries of humans but the battle cries and dying moans of hordes of thirsty bullfrogs, magnified by the muggy air.

The story spread far and wide. At least three ballads were written about the Great Windham Frog Fight, and an 1888 operetta, The Frogs of Old Windham, entertained Connecticut audiences. After the Revolutionary War, the Windham Bank issued banknotes with an image of a frog standing over the body of another frog.

And now the town boasts a fanciful Frog Bridge to commemorate its humorous bit of history. It does make me smile whenever we go across.

— Janice Hecht, senior editor

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