Brunswick's Swinging Bridge
By Juliana L’Heureux
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There's an opportunity for Franco-Americans in Southern Maine to help restore The Androscoggin River Pedestrian Bridge, better known as "The Swinging Bridge" between Topsham and Brunswick. As a historic artifact, the bridge may be the only visible memorial to Franco-Americans in Southern Maine but only if restoration efforts succeed. Between 1892, when the bridge was built, until the middle of the 20th century, before automobiles were common, local French textile and shoe mill workers living on Topsham Island in the middle of the Androscoggin River used the bridge on a regular basis to walk from their homes to work, shop, attend school and Mass at Brunswick's St. John the Baptist Parish. Today, the picturesque old bridge is fragile and in bad shape. The deck is slightly tilted to one side and several of the suspenders wobble. In fact, as a public safety measure, the bridge will be demolished if restoration efforts cannot raise enough money to maintain the structure. The bridge was constructed by John A. Roebling Sons Company, the engineering firm that designed and built the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City and other bridges around the world.
In January of 2002, Topsham joined with the Town of Brunswick to evaluate ways to save the bridge. A Committee made recommendations to the two towns on funding an upgrade to the bridge. Dave Fuller of Bowdoin is chairman of The Swinging Bridge committee for the Town of Topsham. He says about $22,000 has been raised so far from largely private donations. But, more than $70,000 of local money is needed to save the bridge from demolition. If the $70,000 is raised, the restoration project will then qualify for matching federal funds to assure completion of the badly needed repairs.
French-Canadians came to the Brunswick area to work during the height of Maine's industrial age, both pre and post the American Civil War, when the Cabot Mill produced cotton textiles using The Androscoggin River's hydro energy. In fact, Brunswick's Franco-Americans mark the year 1867 as the year when the Cabot Mill began its major capital expansion to meet a growing market for cotton. To quickly meet the labor needs, agents from the Mill were sent to recruit workers from Canada's French speaking Quebec Province. Although contracting labor was illegal, Canadian farmland was poor quality and the market for their farm products was likewise limited. Working for real money was a tremendous lure for poverty stricken Quebecois farmers, known as habitants. A core group of French-Canadians came to the Brunswick area from the L'Islet region of Quebec, on the south bank of the St. Lawrence River. Or course, many other workers came from nearly every corner of Quebec Province and attracted other families members to join them. Despite some discrimination related to their practice of Roman Catholicism in a largely Protestant community, the Franco-Americans in the Brunswick area nevertheless prospered. Today, French names are common in the Brunswick area, although the French language is seldom heard spoken on the streets anymore.
The Swinging Bridge Committee meets monthly, on the third Wednesday, at 7:00 a.m. in the Topsham Town Hall Conference Room, 22 Elm Street. A picture of the bridge and a short description of the restoration project can be found at the Internet address http://www.saveourbridge.org
This article has been expanded by Candace Canes and published in Memories
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Copyright 2003, Juliana L'Heureux