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Stone railway arches are Attleboro's architectural icons

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Downtown Arches

The landmark arches in downtown Attleboro.

In the late 1800s, Attleboro residents and officials were getting fed up with the frequent accidents and tie-ups caused by trains crossing 13 streets in the downtown area.

They began agitating for a solution to the problem.

In 1891, town selectmen (Attleboro wasn’t a city with a city council until 1914) petitioned the New Haven Railroad to eliminate the dangerous crossings by elevating the train tracks.

They wanted bridges in the areas along Park, Peck, South Main and what became Mill streets.

So, in 1905, $1 million was allocated for the construction of four archway bridges to raise the tracks above road level.

And soon, as a record in the Attleboro Historical Commission archives states, “200 Irish laborers descended on Attleboro to begin the work.”

By 1906, the stone structures, which have become Attleboro icons, were complete.

The bridges not only freed downtown streets from dangerous train traffic, but they allowed for a trolley system known as “the loop” to be constructed in the area.

Railroad arch accidents

The railroad arches have claimed many a truck throughout their existence. Here, in June 2012, the driver of a 40-foot long tractor-trailer carrying iced tea and pizza supplies was attempting a left turn from Railroad Avenue onto Mill Street under the stone arch when the truck got stuck.

While the handsome archways have become Attleboro’s trademark, they have never been appreciated by drivers of large trucks who frequently misjudge their height and smash into them.

Police Chief Kyle Heagney remembers that on his first day as a patrolman in Attleboro in 1999, his very first call was for a truck stopped on Park Street because the driver realized he could not safely pass under the bridge.

Heagney said he had to stop all traffic and help the driver back up away from the archway.

But that driver was one of the lucky ones. Every few months, it seems, someone crashes his truck roof into the underbelly of an archway, especially the one on Park Street.

“Those archways have taken a beating over the years, but the archways have always won,” Heagney joked.

When a truck does get stuck, the first solution to be tried is to deflate the tires to lower the top of the truck. If that doesn’t work, the chief said, a tow truck has to yank the truck out with brute force.

Heagney believes accidents have declined in recent years thanks to better signage to warn truck drivers, but accidents still happen.

Police department records show there have been 32 crashes into the archways over the past five years and 22 times police had to assist a truck in backing up to avoid a crash.

Over the years, residents have complained that the level of the roads under the archways should be lowered so there is more clearance room. But director of city planning Gary Ayrassian said that idea has been investigated and proved infeasible.

He said the late Judith Robbins, the former mayor, had engineers look into the idea. They found that stone abutments from the archways stick out into the ground under the roads. Lowering the road would mean removing the abutments, which would weaken the archways, he said.

The archways were built during a boom era in Attleboro when many of the city’s most familiar buildings were constructed.

Attleboro Historical Commission Railroad Arch

This photo shows the railroad arch on Park Street while under construction. The Second Congregational Church can be seen behind the arch.

The Park Street archway went up right next to a new, red brick Second Congregational Church, which replaced a white wooden church in 1904.

Church curator Fred Saunders said the church is a combination of Victorian and Gothic styles.

Park Street, 1907

A view of Park Street in Attleboro in 1907. The Bronson Building can be seen in the background.

The neoclassical, yellow-brick Bronson Building, the tallest structure downtown at five floors, was also constructed in 1904.

Attleboro Library Exterior

Mayor Paul Heroux wants to borrow $6.9 million for library improvements, including a new roof, window repairs and HVAC system upgrades.

An ornate library was built for $85,000 just a few years later in 1907, blocks away on North Main Street on land donated by J.L. Sweet.

The former post office building with its granite columns followed in 1917 at the corner of Park and Union streets.

Wheaton College Prof. Betsey Dexter Dyer, the great-granddaughter of the man who helped to build many of Attleboro’s commercial buildings, said the construction boom in the early 1900s was propelled by population growth and a huge fire that destroyed many of the older, smaller wooden buildings in 1898.

The blaze consumed four acres of the center of the city, including 16 factories.

The masonry company her great-grandfather, Everett Otis Dexter, founded built the Bronson Building along with Second Congregational Church, the armory on Pine Street, the YMCA and many other structures.

She said he is a legend in her family because he went from being a poor farm boy from Rehoboth with little education to a laborer doing masonry work, and finally to a highly accomplished businessman heading a major enterprise.

“He was a great success story,” she said.

The Bronson Building was built on the Bronson family homestead, which the owners believed may have been a Native American site because of artifacts they found there.

The building quickly became the pride of Attleboro and Dyer said it was the first in Attleboro with an elevator.

“The cornerstone of the Bronson Building was laid with impressive ceremonies on July 15, 1904 by the Grand Lodge of Masons of Massachusetts, assisted by the Ezekiel Bates Lodge of Attleboro,” historical commission records state.

It cost $90,000 to build, an impressive sum for the day.

“It was the pride of Attleboro and the tallest building around,” Dyer said.

Construction of the Bronson Building was not without incident, however. Insurance investigators had to look into the unusually high number of pedestrians being hurt by falling bricks at the construction site.

Initially, investigators believed the bricks were falling off a lift that was moving when it shouldn’t have been, which turned out to be partially true.

They found the culprit to be a parrot owned by a Mrs. Fischer at the nearby Bates Building. She would leave the parrot out on a windowsill and the parrot would whistle, imitating the sound the construction workers made when they wanted the lift operator to send up more bricks.

The Bates Building is an even older building and was once the hub of entertainment for Attleboro residents. It was built in 1886.

bates

The historic Bates Building in Attleboro center shortly after it was built.

It was originally a theater called the Bates Opera House and was used to house vaudeville and other traveling shows. It was later converted into a movie theater and is now apartments with some retail.

The red brick Romanesque Revival building is across North Main Street from the Bronson Building and they stand as twin pillars at the crossroads of downtown Attleboro.

The library may have been Attleboro’s most ornate building.

The foyer inside the front doors have “outrageous marble columns” that were the source of civic pride, Dyer said.

But, for all the glory some see in Attleboro’s downtown buildings, it is the archways that are its outstanding architectural feature.

“The archways have been part of the downtown landscape for decades,” Mayor Paul Heroux said. “Because of their unique architecture they don’t separate two halves of the downtown, but they have become the central focal point of it.”

Jim Hand may be reached at 508-236-0399 or jhand@thesunchronicle.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @TSCpolitics.

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