Viewing the Viaduct
Discovering the fascinating history behind Canton's most prominent landmark.
Like many people, I have passed through the Canton Viaduct several times, admiring a gorgeous vista of its multiple stone arches from my rear-view without ever really knowing its full history.
Shame on me. That is until I decided to stop, park my car and take it all in. And I'm so glad I did.
As I researched more about this marvelous bridge, I know why Wallace Gibbs, the president of the Canton Historical Society, calls it "fascinating."
At 615 feet long, 70 feet high and 22 feet wide, it towers over the Canton River like an old city wall. The Canton Viaduct is unarguably Canton's most prominent landmark.
Perhaps it's best described by the famous Boston engraver E.W. Bouvé who is quoted on his 1850 lithograph of the viaduct as saying, "The whole structure is easily the most elegant specimen of rustic masonry in the United States."
In 1984, on the viaduct's 150th anniversary, then-Governor Michael Dukakis also took notice, delivering a proclamation to the town and declaring it "the oldest surviving, continuous multiple stone arch bridge in the U.S."
Perhaps it is most famous for its many closed arches, one of which in 1952 was cut open to allow cars to pass through. Neponset Street passes through one of the arches. And the views from the street are amazing.
In the 1990s, Amtrak invested millions in upgrades for the bridge to withstand high-speed railway service, linking the 41 miles between Boston and Providence. Today, it is also used by the MBTA commuter rail.
"What's fascinating is that it is still working, still going after all these years," Gibbs said.
To top it all of, it was built in about a year—by hand, the historian said.
Irish immigrants of the Scottish freemasonry rite cut the granite from Borderland State Park in Sharon. And their unique stonecutter's marks are visible today.
Gibbs said their marks were initially done to ensure that the worker got paid but also to make sure that it was quality work.
"Some people don't really know the history," Gibbs said. He explains that when Paul Revere had his copper business in Canton, building the viaduct became critical to the success of his company.
Not only did the viaduct bring the railroad to Canton, but "the viaduct was built in order to bring copper to market. It was built for business reasons," he said.
Gibbs explained that at first the bridge was built with only one track—going out of Canton. To come back, the train had to loop around and return. Over the years, an increase in traffic brought the need for a second track that was built several years later.
Today, you can see lithographs of the Canton Viaduct and photographs of the workers who built it, as well as their stonecutter's marks, on display at the Canton Historical Society at 1400 Washington Street.
On a parting note, little did I know that there's a link between the Canton Viaduct and the famous painter of "Whistler's Mother."
William Gibbs McNeil, the father of the famous painter James McNeil Whistler (of "Whistler's Mother" fame) was also head engineer on the Canton Viaduct. Whistler was born the same year construction began on the Canton Viaduct in 1834.
Just as the legacy of Whistler's paintings live on, so, too does the fortitude of the extraordinary Canton Viaduct. It turned 175 years old this past July.