Local advocates, public figures, and other organizations and activists who took part in the Carlton St. Footbridge rebuilding project gather for a ceremonial reopening on Sunday, Sept. 17. Photo by Sean Young for Brookline.News.

A sunny Sunday, Sept. 17, marked the official re-opening of the Carlton Street Footbridge. This 108-foot pony truss bridge links the Longwood residential neighborhood of Brookline (MA) with Riverway Park, one of the parks in Boston/Brookline’s Emerald Necklace designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

The steel Footbridge, designed in 1894 by Alexis French, Brookline Town Engineer and Olmsted collaborator in all phases of park construction, deteriorated from “deferred” maintenance until it was closed in 1976. Since then it has been an eyesore and an unattractive nuisance for park users. In 1998, neighbors and park advocates sought funding for restoration. Contentious political wrangling stalled progress.

However, pedestrian and historic reports supported restoration, and Preservation Mass designated the Footbridge as one of the ten most endangered resources of 2002. Most importantly, restoration opponents from the local precinct were ousted over a 3-year period and broader Town Meeting support grew. 

By 2009, Brookline applied to MA Dept. of Transportation for 90% funding under its Transportation Enhancement program which used federal and state gasoline tax revenue. In 2010, former Governor Michael Dukakis, a longtime advocate and nearby resident, appealed to the MA Transportation Planning and Programming Committee: “The Carlton Street bridge has been a monument of civic neglect.” 

By 2020, Aetna Bridge Co. of Warwick, RI had successfully bid about $4 million for the construction contract. In June 2021, Aetna dismantled the bridge and trucked it down to its facility (really just a small parking lot and painting shed) in Coventry, RI for extensive welding, re-enforcing, sandblasting, priming and painting.

The last step before transport back to Brookline was to “dry-fit” all the pieces to ensure a smooth assembly in Brookline. 

Meanwhile in Brookline, footings and foundations were poured for stairs and extensive ramps, high voltage power lines over the MBTA tracks were shielded, and historic red oaks were pruned and protected.

Cement Forms

In October, 2022, the restored main span and stairways were transported back to Brookline. From 5AM to 8AM, the entire main span was lifted over the trees and placed on the vertical steel columns; everything fit together.

In 2023, many tasks were performed; custom cutting stair and decking treads, installation of lighting both in the park and on the bridge, construction and attachment of the accessible ramps (about 210’), painting (work above the MBTA tracks had to be performed at night), grading and landscaping using Olmsted-appropriate plantings, and paving paths on both park and street sides.

The celebration was a joyful and congratulatory event. Many advocates joined with Brookline officials, Aetna workers, and Gov. Dukakis in the ribbon-cutting.  Most of these small historic bridges are being demolished; this one will last another hundred years! As I remarked ”Utopians build bridges where rivers don’t exist. And today, many of you should consider yourselves Utopians.”

Learn more about the restoration here and through the videos linked below.

tinyurl.com/csf-flyingbridgeReturn of restored main span of Carlton Street Footbridge, Brookline, MA
tinyurl.com/csf-movingdayRestoration of 1894 pony truss steel footbridge in Brookline, MA. It was designed and built by Alexis French, Brookline’s first Town Engineer and collaborator with Frederick Law Olmsted in constructing the Emerald Necklace linear park system in Boston and Brookline. Many footbridges over railroad tracks were made of steel. Few remain today. This footbridge is now (Spring 2021) being restored by Brookline and Aetna Bridge Co. (Warwick, RI). Completion and re-opening are planned for spring, 2023.
tinyurl.com/csf-birdseyeviewDrone video of Carlton Street Footbridge, Brookline, MA
tinyurl.com/csf-beveridgeDr. Charles E. Beveridge, an American social and urban historian, is the leading scholar and author on the work of Frederick Law Olmsted and the series editor of the 12-volume papers of Frederick Law Olmsted now in preparation. He has received numerous grants and awards, and has served as historical consultant for landscapes and master plans across the nation.
tinyurl.com/csf-ribboncuttingSept. 17, 2023: Celebration of formal footbridge re-opening recorded by Brookline Police Dept.

Hugh Mattison (hmattison@aol.com) is a Brookline Town Meeting Member and longtime advocate of restoration for both the Footbridge and the Emerald Necklace.