The Route 3A Bridge over the North River on the Marshfield/Scituate line.

News reports indicate that we will soon have a new North River Bridge at Route 3A. It’s been a long time coming. The old bridge was dismantled five years ago, and a temporary one was constructed in its place. For a long time after that, it appeared that nothing was happening to further the project along. I know I’m not the only one who wondered whether the state highway department was waiting for us to forget that the structure was supposed to be temporary in the first place — especially while in the meantime they made short work of demolishing, replacing, and reconstructing a bridge further upriver, on Route 53 in Hanover.

Apparently that wasn’t the case. In fact, state officials have been meeting regularly with a group of locals to ensure that the new bridge on the Scituate/Marshfield line not only meets our safety needs, but our aesthetic and environmental ones as well.

It will be satisfying to have the new bridge in place — to know that the project is at last complete, and that our tax dollars have gone where they were intended. Transportation-wise, the new bridge may not be much different from the temporary one, but from an environmental point of view, the permanent structure will be a marked improvement, as now there will be catch basins to filter pollutants out of the water that runs off the road, protecting the river and surrounding marshes.

However what I’m looking forward to most of all is a feature that is — in the immediate area, anyway — unique: a designated scenic overlook. Thanks to the input of local citizens and officials, an area from which to view this beautiful stretch of river was included in the design.

Remember when the old bridge was deemed unsafe, and the highway department installed traffic lights at each end to reduce the number of vehicles passing over it at a given time? For those of us who were accustomed to sailing over the bridge at 45 mph, those stoplights felt awkward and disruptive. Before, while heading north on 3A, you could coast down Main Street out of Marshfield Hills and glide across the bridge into Scituate with nary a tap on the brake. But when the lights went in, it was necessary to stop at the bottom of the hill and wait for the go sign. Even after the green light, the ride was not the same: what was once a breathtaking view of the marshes and the river was obscured by a gloomy column of jersey barriers that rendered the road so narrow that you had to question whether there was enough room to pass through. What’s more, you could never be sure whether the people waiting on the other side of the bridge — the ones who, just like you, were used to an uninterrupted river crossing — would actually heed the red light and stop.

Once I got over the annoyance of having to wait for the light every time I crossed the bridge, I realized that this involuntary break in my day was actually a gift. The stoplights at each end of the bridge offered me a few seconds, maybe even a minute, to look out over the river both upstream and down, to take in the views that seemed always to be changing. On foggy days or sunny ones, on rainy days or in snowstorms, throughout the different seasons, and as the sun changed position in the sky, there was always something new to look at. I was actually a little disappointed when the temporary bridge was completed and the traffic lights taken away. Stopping at the river each day had become a ritual for me: I looked forward to pausing for a moment to roll down my window and take in a breath of salty river air.

Sometimes I would try to imagine the place in earlier times. This North River crossing was part of the Bay Path from Plymouth to Boston, one of the first roads in the county. From 1637 to 1825, there was plenty of traffic, but no bridge. With the river mouth several miles further downstream than it is today, the waters were much calmer then — probably shallower too. But the North River was by no means a stream that someone would ford on foot.

Until 1825, people relied on a ferry service to cross the river. Originally operated by William Vassal, it was later taken on by several generations of the Doggett family. The originally ferry boat was probably a small skiff or canoe used for the transport of pedestrians, and later a square end scow large enough to accommodate teams of horses and stagecoaches. In 1825 a toll bridge was erected, eventually to be known as Little’s Bridge, after a family who lived nearby. The tolls paid for the building and upkeep of the bridge, and the collector lived in a house on site, charging 1 cent for pedestrians, 8 cents for a single team and 10 cents for a double team. The towns of Marshfield and Scituate took joint control of the bridge in 1865 and made it toll-free.

Over the course of this century, we have become an automobile oriented culture, zipping around in our vehicles from one place to the next. The roads that evolved from foot paths to bridle paths to cart paths are now paved highways that are neither pedestrian- nor bicyclist-friendly. Sidewalks are installed as a matter of course, but with traffic speeding by and the near-constant use of the road shoulder as a passing lane, we don’t quite feel safe walking there. The way our communities are laid out, it’s not practical to go from place to place on foot. Confined to our cars, we don’t have as many opportunities to stop and enjoy the view.

It is impossible to say how many people will take advantage of the new North River scenic overlook. Even though it will be set at the side of a busy highway, with the constant rush of traffic in the background, I think this scenic area will encourage passers-by to take the time — even if it’s just once — to get out of the car and contemplate this spectacular landscape. My hope is that it will become a popular spot.

by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
October 1999

Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.