This Was Then: The Edgartown–Chappaquiddick Bridge

Three big ideas go badly.

1
The 632-foot bridge, as depicted in a 1925 Chappaquiddick Association mailer sent to landowners.

Our beloved Edgartown–Chappaquiddick Bridge was built in 1925, the same year that the Vineyard’s esteemed regional secondary school, Union High School, was finally erected to unite the three down-Island high schools.

Well, that was the plan, anyway.

The bridge would have been about where Witchwood Lane is today, off Katama Road’s left fork, and stretched 632 feet across Katama Bay to Snow’s Point, just south of Caleb’s Pond on Chappaquiddick. The $100,000 construction cost was to be repaid over 20 years, more than paid for (it was predicted) by the increased taxable value of Chappy real estate.

The bridge was designed and would have been constructed by the American Bridge Co., a leader in bridge engineering around the world. (They had built Hell Gate Bridge in New York City in 1916, for many years the world’s longest steel arch bridge.) The new Chappaquiddick bridge was promised to last 400 years, and cost only $200 annually for upkeep. The 20-foot-wide cement slab roadway would ascend 50 feet above the water, resting upon two cement piers, and provide conduits for water, gas, electricity, and telephone wires. Chappaquiddick residents “will have the advantage of fire and police protection … and if desired, of telephone and electricity service,” promised the Chappaquiddick Association, an ad hoc group which organized to champion the cause. The bridge would “make it possible for doctors to get to the sick.” There had been three drownings crossing from Chappaquiddick in living memory, it was noted. Although only 16 registered voters lived on the island, there were more than 200 landowners, including many native families who had moved away, as well as 50 or 60 summer homes.

In 1925, steamers still stopped in Edgartown, but with less and less frequency. Many in town worried about the day when the steamships would abandon this port altogether, dooming downtown Edgartown (let alone Chappaquiddick), they believed, to become a depressed backwater. The bridge, many argued, would revitalize the town and make Edgartown more central.

The bridge movement originated with summer resident John Jeremiah, a wealthy retired New York insurance broker who drove a 1914 Packard Phaeton along Chappy’s few drivable roads. However, “some 50 years ago” — evidently in the 1870s — ”the project of a bridge was earnestly brought forward, and no doubt would then have been accomplished had not death removed the farsighted persons who suffered the need and who were advocating the project,” recalled the association.

A tunnel was also considered in 1925, although when “the largest tunnel contractor in the United States” was approached for an estimate, they returned a construction cost of more than $500,000. A chain ferry, too, was also researched, but costs were estimated at “close to $10,000 per year.” Besides, commuters would “have their patience over-taxed,” and the ferry would cause “delay” and “annoyance,” argued the association.

It should be noted that the Chappy ferry in 1925 was a small, public rowboat. The landing was beach sand, and the ferry tender paid $1 a day by the town, and 6 cents per passenger. There were, however, seven cars on the island, including Jeremiah’s.

Meanwhile, another big movement was afoot: Our third island superintendent of schools, Charles Crowell of Vineyard Haven, had begun a push in 1916 for an island-wide regional high school, which was to be named “Union High School.” Robert Martin (who became our fourth superintendent, in 1918) eventually brought this locally popular issue to the floor of the state legislature.

But it was to many Islanders’ great anger that Edgartown preemptively torpedoed the whole school regionalization movement by voting in their own new high school in 1924, effectively ending that battle for another 30 years. Edgartown’s new school was ironically named “Union School,” as it combined the old North and South Schools into a single building.

Edgartown selectmen, saddled with a new $100,000 school building project, pulled their support for a $100,000 bridge to Chappaquiddick. If Edgartown was going to build a new school, it couldn’t afford a bridge, too.

Chappaquiddick residents and landowners were understandably angry, but they were particularly miffed that it had been a new school for Edgartown that ultimately stymied their bridge, because the Chappaquiddick School had been closed in 1916. Many Chappaquiddick families with children had been forced to move to mainland Edgartown then, and only three commuting children remained. In response, in April 1926 voters put forth a petition to the Massachusetts legislature for Chappaquiddick to secede from Edgartown. Not surprisingly, that plan failed, too.

 

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released June 1. Come hear Baer speak about writing a column on Monday, August 6, at “Islanders Write.”