Great Escape

Some things you never knew about a Boston Bridge

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By Gavin Kleespies

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he Harvard Bridge is one of the simplest and least adorned across the Charles. It looks downright plain compared to the Longfellow Bridge, with the prows of Viking longboats decorating its base, or the Anderson Bridge, whose entrance piers are hung with mantling and armor. The Harvard Bridge seems so anonymous that most people don’t know its name, wrongly calling it the MIT Bridge or the Mass. Ave. Bridge. But the Harvard Bridge has a fascinating history in plain sight, if you just know where to look.

For one thing, the bridge is a lot older than you’d think. It was built in 1891, long before MIT moved to Cambridge—before the land MIT sits on was even reclaimed from the river through landfill. When the bridge was built, Cambridge and Boston were still highly industrialized and the Charles was an active shipping lane, so the bridge originally had a swing span in the middle to let large ships pass through.

Another thing that makes the Harvard Bridge cooler than you thought is that Harry Houdini jumped off of it. In chains. Houdini, trying to continue to outdo himself, shifted from escaping from handcuffs and chains onstage to escaping from jail cells to eventually staging dramatic escapes from perilous situations. One of his early dramatic public displays was on May 1, 1908, when he jumped from the Harvard Bridge in manacles. He lived, of course. There’s a plaque, placed on the bridge by the Society of American Magicians, commemorating the feat.

Many people do know that the Harvard Bridge gave rise to a new unit of measurement: the Smoot. In 1958, his MIT classmates measured the bridge in Oliver Smoots (Class of 1962), laying the hapless 5-foot-7 freshman down on the sidewalk, picking him up, and successively moving him one Smoot farther. (For the record, and for the countless number of times it comes up in bar trivia, the bridge is 364.4 Smoots long.) What you probably didn’t know is that the Smoot in question went on to regulate American measurements. Oliver Smoot became the head of the American National Standards Institute and later the International Organization for Standardization.

You never know what history is right under your feet.

Gavin Kleespies is director of programs at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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