Vermont. October 1, 2012. Sometimes others perception of one’s occupation belie your spirit. One would not expect your stereotypical accountant to be the adventurous type. However, here in the Connecticut River valley, one adventurous accountant belies the stereotype. In one of her many scuba diving excursions into the Connecticut River she came up with pictures of the “Elephant Bridge.” That’s right, the Elephant Bridge and in that unusual name hangs a tale.
An elephant was a new and exciting phenomenon in the early 1800s. The elephant brought to Putney with a traveling circus in September of 1820 created lots of excitement and attracted residents from all over to see this strange beast. Horatio was the elephant’s name, named so, one historian conjectures, because of a famous sea captain of the time, Lord Horatio Nelson who, in 1803 sailed to victory on the ship HMS Elephant in the Battle of Copenhagen.
Accounts say that Horatio was only the third elephant to make it to America and likely the first seen in New England. Our historian related the tragic end of the first two elephants to come to America, both shot to death by erratic individuals. One shooter thought it immoral to display any animal for profit and took his outrage out on the elephant. The second died because an individual wanted to test the veracity of the owner’s boast that elephant hide was tough enough to stop a bullet. Tragic ends for those elephants that foreshadowed the fate of Horatio in America.
Horatio needed to get to Keene from Putney for the next show. The route took the two owners, two hired hands and Horatio to the bridge that crossed from Putney, VT to Westmoreland, NH. Horatio stepped onto but then balked at crossing the bridge. With two men in front and two men behind, the owners whipped and prodded the unwilling Horatio onto the bridge. Horatio made it to the Westmoreland side when likely due to weakened construction materials the bridge planks gave way and dumped one owner, a hired man, their horses and Horatio 40 feet down onto the rocks.
The fall killed the owner. The hired man survived with a broken leg. Unfortunately, the fall broke Horatio’s back and as he lay on the rocks, a block and tackle arrangement tried to set him on his feet but his back legs would not carry his 3-ton weight. Eventually local citizens lifted him onto an ox sled and then using eight yoke of oxen aided by men with drag ropes slid him up the bank and to a barn in Westmoreland where despite the best treatment the citizens could provide for him, Horatio died from his wounds a week later. They buried the remains in Westmoreland sending his skin to Boston for mounting.
First constructed in 1810, rising water in the spring of 1813 floated and lifted the ice frozen to the bridge until the water swept it off its piers. It was rebuilt in 1814 and the abutments originally placed foolishly at the low water mark were reconstructed further back toward the banks raising the bridge height. In the reconstruction in 1814, builders used wood salvaged from the first bridge regardless of the condition of some of the timbers. Some had lain in water for a year before they were reused and their use potentially led to the demise of Horatio when the old weakened timbers gave way under his weight. They attempted to build the bridge one last time after Horatio collapsed it, only to have it taken out by a February freshet within ten years.
The original purpose of our adventurous accountant’s dive was to see if she could find an old Abenaque engine rumored lost overboard from a ferry in that reach of river. The Abenaque Machine Company made gas engines in Westminster Station in the late 1890s, just up river from the bridge site. On her first exploratory dive, the Elephant Bridge appeared as an unexplained apparition stretching across the bottom of the river. Members of local historical societies helped identify the remains of the wooden bridge and they believe it was a covered bridge. Her dive team went back and took pictures of the remains of the bridge still extant on the bottom of the river.
Captured in underwater pictures, the timbers appear as phantoms in this eerie watery world but they clearly show the milled and joined wood, construction in the manner of woodworking of that era. The timbers were not exposed to air so have not rotted away nor have they been completely covered by sediment inhibiting anaerobic digestion by microorganisms, albeit the timbers have been “sand papered” by the numerous high flows loaded with sediment over the 180 years the bridge has been on the bottom of the river. The timbers that remain serve as a wooden fresh water reef. Several pictures show numerous rock and smallmouth bass casually swimming around the divers, in some cases approaching them for more handouts.
The picture recording of the remains of the Elephant Bridge is a valuable effort to document a small but fascinating piece of Connecticut River history. Our adventurous accountant is somewhat disappointed though because she has not seen Horatio’s ghost at the site, yet!
David L. Deen is River Steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council. CRWC is celebrating 60 years as a protector of the Connecticut River.