There are two major railroad bridges in Ashland, crossing the Squam River and the Pemigewasset River.
Squam Bridge: As far as I can determine, there have been three bridges over the Squam River. The original wooden bridge was built in 1849. An engineer's report on the BC&M RR in 1884, when the Boston & Lowell took it over, noted that the bridge was in bad condition and should be renewed. It was replaced in 1887 by the Boston & Lowell with another wooden bridge described as a double lattice truss bridge with new abutments and piers. A temporary trestle 525 feet long was erected to keep the trains running, while the second bridge was built. The present steel bridge was erected in 1928-29 by the Boston & Maine RR.
Pemigewasset Bridge: There have been four railroad bridges built between Ashland and Bridgewater over the Pemigewasset River
The first bridge, built in 1849, was described as “a deck bridge with metallic covering” over the wooden structure. “Deck Bridge” means that the supporting structure was under the tracks. At about 410 feet long, it was the longest bridge on the railroad. The original bridge cost all of $12,000, but it only lasted 11 years. About half past nine in the evening of May 14, 1860, the bridge was discovered to be on fire. This was shortly after the cattle train had crossed the bridge, so it was thought that sparks from the locomotive probably started the fire. It burned down in less than an hour and a half. (There were no fire departments in those days.) A new temporary bridge was built quickly.
The second permanent bridge, put up to replace the first bridge, presumably in 1860 or 1861, was described in that 1884 Boston & Lowell engineers report as “a half deck lattice with arch” which I believe means that it was supported by lattice trusses on each side supplemented by wooden arches. I am not quite sure what “half deck” means, perhaps that the railroad track was about half way up the trusses, no longer completely above them. The report described the three span bridge as 414 ½ feet in length, and expressed some concern about one abutment and one pier. It also had a roof which was damaged in snowstorms in 1881and 1885 and in a windstorm early in 1886 according to newspaper reports. Another report on its replacement calls it “the old deck bridge destroyed by the freshet” but I could not find any report of a flood destroying the bridge. I am not really sure what it looked like. No pictures have been discovered.
Third bridge: In any case the c.1860 bridge was replaced by the Boston & Lowell RR in 1886 with a new 435 foot long bridge, a double lattice covered bridge. The abutments and piers had been rebuilt and raised nine feet and the railroad grade lowered by three feet. The bridge cost $15,000. The Lake Village Times was really enthusiastic about the new bridge, calling it “probably the best railroad bridge in New England”. This is the wooden bridge we have pictures of. But it only lasted sixteen years before being destroyed in the best known railroad disaster in Ashland’s history.
In December 1901, floods on the Pemigewasset and Baker Rivers did a lot of damage to railroads. The lines were reopened soon, but repairs of the washouts continued. The gravel for the repairs came from a pit in Bridgewater served by a spur track that joined the main line just north of the bridge. A work train hauled the gravel from the pit to the work sites. A spotting or switching engine run by engineer Edward Ranno worked in the pit moving the empty cars so the steam shovel could load them with gravel, and also switching the empty cars from the work train for the full cars from the pit, which took some maneuvering. The gravel pit spur was so close to the bridge that during these maneuvers, the spotting engine actually backed onto the bridge. On the morning of January 2 1902, the regular morning freight train heading north from Concord to Woodsville had 34 cars drawn by two locomotives. At Meredith, the freight train engineers were told to wait until 11:05 at the Bridgewater gravel pit, for the work train. When the freight train passed the Ashland station, the forward locomotive engineer looked at his watch and saw that it said 11:11. So the track ahead should be clear. The freight train was an hour behind schedule, so the speed was increased as the train headed north. But the track was not empty. The conductor in charge of the gravel pit operation was aware of the oncoming freight train, so at 10:56, according to his testimony, he sent the spotting engine brakeman south over the bridge and down the tracks to flag down the oncoming train. In the meantime, the spotting engine backed onto the bridge with the loaded gravel cars. As the freight train rounded the curve south of the bridge, the forward engineer saw the brakeman making the signal to stop. The engineer applied the brakes and sounded the whistle. The train slowed down but could not stop before the bridge. When the freight train crew saw that there was an engine on the bridge and that a collision was unavoidable, they jumped off just before the bridge and landed in the snow banks without injury. The fireman on the spotting engine was able to jump off the engine and make it out through the south portal before the collision. No one knows what happened to the engineer Ranno, whether he jumped or was thrown off by the collision. He was found on the ice under the bridge with a broken leg and severe internal injuries. When the three locomotives collided on the bridge above him, their boilers burst, dumping boiling water onto Ranno, horribly scalding him. He was placed on the work train engine, which took him to the Plymouth hospital, but he died around 3 p.m. The collision scattered the burning coals from the locomotives' fire boxes, immediately starting a fire. Within five minutes, the whole bridge was in flames. The Ashland fire department were called out, but they had no pumps, just buckets, and chemical fire extinguishers. They were able to save the rest of the freight train by a bucket brigade. But there was nothing they could do to save the bridge. Within an hour, the bridge was completely destroyed and collapsed under the weight of the trains. The locomotives were later salvaged. But, some of the cars are still in the river.
The Boston & Maine responded quickly. By the next morning, construction had begun on a temporary pile bridge. Hundreds of workers worked day and night (under floodlights) to remove the wreckage, drive the piles and build the pile bridge, which was completed within a week. Part of this temporary bridge was washed away in the spring floods and had to be rebuilt.
Fourth Bridge: At this point, the railroads had lost three wooden bridges at this crossing in 53 years. The Boston & Maine RR decided to build a steel bridge. A new bridge was designed by engineer John Storrs of Concord. The contract for the bridge was awarded to the American Bridge Company of New York, which shipped the steel parts to Bridgewater by the end of the year. The steel bridge was erected over the temporary bridge in January and February of 1903. 116 years later, it is still standing and still carrying trains.
Part 4: This presentation of The Railroad in Ashland was delivered by David Ruell to the Ashland Historical Society on September 12, 2019 in the Ashland Railroad Station Museum.