Echo Bridge in Upper Falls is perhaps the most dramatic man-made structure in Newton. The huge bridge was built in the 1870’s to carry the Sudbury aqueduct across Hemlock Gorge to bring water to the people of Boston.
A key feature of the bridge that makes it so beloved to the locals is the pedestrian walkway across the top of the bridge that affords a stunning view of the gorge and the waterfall on the Charles River.
About 10 years ago, the MWRA (the owners of the bridge) determined that the original wrought iron railings on the bridge were decidedly unsafe. Many of the supporting post and poles were rotted right through with rust. In response, the pedestrian path over the bridge was shut down for a time amidst a very big public uproar. Local officials, the Friends of Hemlock Gorge, neighbors and the MWRA hammered out a stopgap plan to get the bridge re-opened. The MWRA installed a butt-ugly chain link fence anchored to portable poured concrete footings. Everyone at the time knew that this chain-link fence was a stop-gap, quick and dirty fix to get the bridge re-opened for pedestrians.
In the intervening 10 years, the original wrought iron railings have of course continued to decay. Restoring that original railing is a multi-million dollar project that no one has the money for. An additional complication is that even if the money was available, the design of the original railings do not meet current safety codes, so an additional safety fence would need to be installed in addition to those railings
A few years back, Rep Ruth Balser was able to get $250,000 allocated in the state’ Transportation Bond Bill for the bridge. That money is a drop in the bucket in terms of what it will cost to replace the original iron railings.
In December of 2015, the MWRA put together several options to use that money to replace the chain link safety fence with something more aesthetically pleasing and and presented them to the Newton Upper Falls Historic District Commission. It seems that the Commission would like the original railings restored – something everyone wants including the MWRA. Unfortunately no one has the millions of dollars needed to do that. Seemingly out of the commission’s frustration that the original railings have not yet been restored, the Newton Upper Falls Historic District Commission, by vote of 5-0 denied the application to replace the existing chain link fence at Echo Bridge. The Commission motioned to leave the existing chain link fence and to use the available funds to repair and paint the historic metal railing, and to prevent further deterioration to the existing historic metal railing.
This is a classic case of the “perfect is the enemy of the good”. Thanks to Ruth Balser and the MWRA’s effort we have a plan to replace the absolutely un-historic (and ugly) chain link safety fence with a safety fence designed to blend in with the historic design. To be clear, even if the historic railings are eventually restored, either the old chain link or this proposed new fence will still be required to meet safety codes.
The MWRA will be back before the Upper Falls Historic Commission this coming Thursday, July 14, 7 PM in Room 205 at City Hall with one last proposal for an improved safety fence. We’re hoping this time around the commission sticks to evaluating the merits of the new proposed safety fence rather than getting sidetracked with their (and all of ours) disappointment that no one has the millions of dollars to restore the bridge’s historic railings. Turning this proposal down is a vote for chain link.
If you have an opinion on the matter, please consider attending next Thursday’s meeting of the Commission. This is a subject near and dear to my heart, and to the heart of 400 of my friends and neighbors. Just two weeks ago they all streamed over Echo Bridge, the entrance to the Feast of the Falls. Let’s hope by next year’s Feast the bridge will be significantly improved thanks to the work of the MWRA.