The engineer and the Ashley Falls bridge

Saturday November 10, 2012


If you drive on Route 7A south toward Ashley Falls, you will cross the Hou satonic River over a steel bridge that bears a name plate that indicates it was built by Berlin Construction Co. But the structure was actually designed by the Massachu setts Department of Public Works’ bridge department in Boston, David L. Costello told me. As state highway engineer, he oversaw its installation in 1925.

"It replaced a Berlin truss bridge built in the 1880s," he said.

Costello told me this quite a few years ago. He died in 1987. But I recently trolled through a file cabinet and located four letters he sent me in 1977, in answer to a few questions I’d skidded his way about old highway bridges. Boston engineers designed bridges "with the exception of some of the smaller bridges that were designed in the district offices," he wrote, "but of recent years many of the designs are let out to consulting engineering firms and approved for the department.

"The standard for design is known as H-20 loading, which members and sizes with a safety factor of 3 must be such as to sustain loads of 20-ton trucks on each traffic lane 10 feet apart."


Costello had been born in Sheffield in 1891 in "the 1740 House at the corner of Bow Wow Road and Giberson Road," he told me. He studied civil engineering at The City College in New York City and at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, graduating with the class of 1912.

"After working for the N.Y., N.H. & Hartford R.R. Co. [and] the U.S. Navy Dep’t," Costello wrote, "I was em ployed as an engineer for the Mass. Dep’t of Public Works from 1921 to 1938 in District I headquarters, at that time in Pittsfield, and from 1938 to 1961 in District II headquarters in Greenfield, when I retired. During that time I helped to design and supervise all types of bridges, including the first covered bridge that was built in Mass. in 100 years in Charlemont in 1953. Later another one was built over the Housatonic River in Sheffield."

That covered bridge in Shef field has since been re placed. As to the Ashley Falls bridge that is still in use, Costello noted that when work began, there were three bridges at the river crossing: One for highway, one for railroad and one for trolley.

"The Mass. D.P.W. received permission from the Berk shire Street Railway Co. to use their abandoned railroad for a temporary road for traffic," Costello said, "so our first operation was to remove the tracks from the Street Railway bridge, construct a new deck and roadway. The new highway bridge and approaches were raised perhaps four or five feet to give greater clearance for water flowing under the bridge."

When assigned to District II, Costello and his wife, Rebecca Cuddy, relocated to Greenfield, where they raised two daughters and one son. In his retirement, before he moved to California to be nearer his children, Costello undertook a remarkable re search project. He mapped the Mohawk Trail in 1975 -- drawing over modern topographic maps the original Indian route adopted by pioneers and militiamen in the 1740s. He self-published the 16-by-19-inch spiral-bound treatise "The Mohawk Trail Showing Old Roads and Other Points of Interest." He sent me one and I’ve enjoyed following the various paths each time I’ve opened it.

Costello wrote in an introduction "these maps show the approximate location of the original Mohawk Indian trail as close as it can be ascertained from all available information. In the course of time it was improved, and relocated in many places for easier access for pack horses, ox-carts, and wagons." The Indians took a more direct route to the top of Hoosac Mountain; the hairpin turn wasn’t built until 1914, for the automobile.

The engineer explained how early settlers made roads: "The roads leading away from the first settlements usually followed a route that required the least amount of clearing or improvement to carry supplies by pack horses to a new home or settlement. The easy access roads no doubt were the Indian trails used wherever they existed." The initial use of the Mohawk Trail by whites was to reach Fort Mas sachusetts from Deer field. The fort was reconstructed for tourism purposes in 1933, in the parking lot of the North Adams Price Chopper, but was later razed.


Costello’s maps are punctuated with little asides. On the North Adams-Florida ridge, he notes: "In 1753 the first road across Hoosac Mountain was built by Captain Elisha Hawley, who previously commanded Fort Massachusetts and was given a grant by the General Court to lay out and build a road from Fort Mas sachusetts to Charlemont. It was completed in 1765."

On Church Street in North Adams, near the Adams line, Costello noted, "Old pack horse trail between North amp ton and Stamford, Ver mont, laid out as a county road in 1790." Oh the gems a highway engineer comes across.

By the way, The Mahican-Mohawk Trail Council of Franklin County has created a foot trail that approximates the old Indian path on the east side of the mountain, for anyone who wants to step into the past.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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