Welcome to our fourth installment of New Bedford Streets; A Piece of Americana. I invite you to read up on the history behind William Street, Kempton Street and Ashley Boulevard. As usual, I’d like to re-iterate the importance of reader feedback, correction, and contributions. In the process of exploring these streets, I try to confirm or validate statements and dates by finding multiple sources. Unfortunately, if all those sources are making their statement based on an older, incorrect source, and there isn’t any dissenting information available, there’s no way to know otherwise. So by all means, please join in.
In addition, when trying to validate some statements, often there is very little to no information available. I haven’t decided which is worse – finding one source, or finding multiple sources, but not knowing if they were all based on an inaccuracy. So help from local historians, those who remember, oral histories and anecdotes handed down through the generations, people with private collections, and even know-it-alls help!
In this installment, we are going to explore a street steeped in history and importance. Not only is it one of the oldest streets in the city, it was at one time the lifeblood of the the city and a connector between Bedford Village and Oxford Village (Fairhaven): Middle Street.
Middle street wasn’t always named so. It was originally called Bridge Street, since it connected to the New Bedford/Fairhaven bridge. If you were to fly low – in let’s say a helicopter – straight along Middle street in New Bedford, you would arrive on Bridge Street in Fairhaven, the original name of Middle Street! Today where Middle street in New Bedford would have connected to the bridge is cut off by the Elm Street parking garage and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway or Route 18. After you pass the current bridge and over the causeway, this street turns into Huttleston Avenue. However, if you were to bear right before that at the Pope Island Marina and somehow drove across the water, you would eventually be driving on Bridge Street in Fairhaven.
Fairhaven/New Bedford Bridge; A slight Diversion
Today’s bridge seems to serve more as an interruption to traffic, so let’s stick with that theme and take a slight diversion at the monster responsible for the dubbing of Middle Street. The original bridge was was built under William Rotch’s direction (and assisted by many others) in 1796 and served as a toll bridge. The fare for crossing the bridge in 1800 is known since we not only have quite a few mentions of it in historical documents, but tickets can still be found. Here is what it cost in 1800 to cross the bridge:
- 4 cents for each foot passenger.
- 6 cents for a foot passenger pushing a wheelbarrow or hand cart.
- 6 additional cents for a dozen head of cattle, swine, horses, or sheep.
- 12 cents for each person and a horse.
- 18 cents for each sleigh drawn by one horse, and 6 cents for each additional horse.
- 36 cents for each coach, wagon or sled or other carriage of burden.
Keep in mind at this time, Fairhaven was still part of New Bedford. Fairhaven wouldn’t incorporate until later in 1812. In 1807, a great tide came in and swept the bridge away. Of course being a major thoroughfare a new bridge replaced the old. Alas, it lasted only 8 years before heavy winds blew it down.
On September 29, 1815 a massive storm slammed into the region and raised tides by over 10 feet. The devastation and damage was catastrophic. Hundreds of homes and businesses were wiped away, ships including the Lagoda were stove in, damaged or destroyed. The storm coincided with high tide and came in so quickly that people had to abandon their stations. This did irreparable damage in terms of the loss of historical documents, account books, logbooks, city and town records, and more. The flooding waters were said to reach all the way to County Street.
New Englanders, known for their stubbornness, thrift and industriousness licked their wounds and got to rebuilding, and simply put up a third bridge in 1819. The curse seemed to lift and the bridge got to it’s 50th birthday in 1869, before nature reared her mighty head and another gale blew the bridge down yet a fourth time! In the bridge’s fifth reincarnation it was no longer a toll bridge and it was free for all to pass.
In 1899, construction began on the bridge to modernize it, place a swivel in it’s center, and shift it slightly to the north where it connected to Fairhaven. This construction was completed in 1902. That’s the bridge we all “love” and sits there today. I know there are more than a few people who would love for a gale or epic storm to come and wash this bridge away a final time. However, keeping with the aforementioned New Englander attributes, it would simply rise from the ashes like some evil Phoenix, waiting for the moment you are pressed for time, late for an appointment, or felt like relying on the warning sign.