Carole Owens: A tale of a bridge and unrequited love


STOCKBRIDGE >> There is the true story of Butler Bridge and the apocryphal. As it is Valentine's Day tomorrow, both should be told.

It was 1881. Charles E. Butler gave Stockbridge the gift of a bridge that connected his property to town. His estate, Linwood, was a mile or two out of town (today the house stands on the grounds of the Norman Rockwell Museum). The bridge made the trip into town shorter and more convenient.

Butler invited a friend and fellow attorney, George S. Morison, to build the bridge. In no way did practicing law qualify a man to build a bridge, but Morison was unique. He abandoned the law for construction and earned a reputation for bridge building. Some say he was the best known and most respected bridge builder of the 19th century.

Morison decided to build a steel truss bridge that stands to this day on Butler Road. It is a beautiful drive. The road is laid through the woods and along the Housatonic River. At the place where the river abruptly turns left, the bridge spans it. It is a charming spot and the bridge did service for 100 years.

In 1981 it was declared too weak and closed. As an elegant alternative to a sign declaring "closed to vehicular traffic," large boulders were placed narrowing the roadbed, making it impossible for a car or truck to pass.

In 1982 Stockbridge requested state funds to repair the bridge; the state responded with a plan to tear down the old and erect a new bridge. Stockbridge declined and used town funds to stabilize the bridge. It was still closed.

In 1990 the Library of Congress sent a team of architects to document the bridge. It was possibly the oldest surviving truss bridge in Berkshire County and perhaps the world. Furthermore there were only eight examples remaining of Morison's work in the country. The lead LOC architect said, "It is a shame if the significance of the bridge is not recognized. It is really a treasure."

Hope was high that now the funds would be made available and The Eagle reported, "Repairs Imminent." All were overly optimistic. No state or federal funds were offered and again the town voted the money for repairs sufficient to open the bridge for pedestrian traffic.

For the next 20 years Butler Bridge found its way into the civil discourse but no restoration was done. In 2012 the bridge at Interlaken failed and pressure to restore one or the other increased. To date neither is restored.

It is a nice business-like story with the benefit of being true, but where is the romance? Now the apocryphal:

Charles E. Butler's law partner was Charles F. Southmayd; the junior partner was Joseph Choate. Although Southmayd did brilliant legal research and writing, the more charming Choate appeared in court and before the Supreme Court. Therefore it was Choate who garnered all the credit for what was at least half Southmayd's work.

In a way that was the story of Southmayd's life: not a tale of deeds done but of things left undone. Southmayd's love was unrequited and may have been unexpressed. The irony was that this sorry excuse for a love affair awarded Southmayd credit for something he did not do. That is, build Butler Bridge.

The dour and withdrawn man of fine character, intelligence, and professional skill loved the same someone for a lifetime. He knew her, girl and woman, because she was the daughter of his law partner, Butler. The story passed around the village with great gusto and less veracity was as follows:

Southmayd pined for her, and needed to see her every day. Southmayd's estate was a pleasant walk from Linwood if he could have gone directly. The problem was that the river was in the way. Therefore, the story goes, out of love and longing, Southmayd commissioned the bridge and he paid for it. It cost a reputed $30,000 in 1881 dollars; more than half a million today.

Facts aside and truth be damned. There was something in the image of the old man walking across that bridge daily to gaze upon his beloved in silence that expressed a greater truth; the essence of Southmayd's devotion and its mute frustration.

May all your Valentine's Days be more satisfying than those of Charles F. Southmayd of Stockbridge.

A writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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