GROTON -- It is a work of art, crossing the Nashua River from the east, off the intersection of Fitch's Bridge Road and the end of Gratuity Road to the west, where it connects to Pepperell Road/Shirley Street.
The newly constructed Fitch's Bridge, for use by pedestrians, bicyclists, and equestrians, provides a trail link that will serve residents far into the future. The 100-mile Groton trails system is now contiguous, with more than 70 miles of trails east of Nashua River in Groton that are part of that area's evolving trail network reaching all the way to Surrenden Farm, and another 30 miles of trails west of the Nashua River that extend as far as Groton Town Forest and to Squannacook River along the border with Ayer.
Believed to be one of the oldest rivet-connected truss bridges in North America, the previous Fitch's Bridge had deteriorated to the point that it was unsafe. First built as a wooden bridge in the 1700s, Fitch's Bridge was maintained with repairs, but the wooden structure was eventually replaced by a steel bridge in 1898. The steel bridge was closed to traffic around 1965 due to a lack of adequate structural integrity, and it had not been repaired since then.
In January 2013, Groton voted to authorize both the demolition of the existing truss and the construction of a new Fitch's Bridge. On a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon, the Groton Trails Committee hosted a grand-opening ceremony to unveil the new Fitch's Bridge structure. Residents arrived in a variety of modes of transportation: by foot, by bike, by car, and on horseback.
Some guests joined members of the Groton Trails Committee on one of two guided, family-friendly tours that began at noon -- one guided hike began at the Hayes Woods Trailhead on Maple Street and tracked through the Johnston Parcel to the newly constructed Fitch's Bridge.
A guided bike tour began at the Groton Senior Center following Spencer Circle Road to the trail from Hill Street to Fitch's Bridge. Others arrived by canoe or by kayak.
Special guests, invited by Groton Trails Committee Chairman Paul Funch, included current and former members of the Trails Committee.
"This will be a historic occasion, and I hope you can be a part of the celebration," he stated in his outreach to members. "It would not be an exaggeration to say that the efforts of the Trails Committee since it was formed in 1998 have always been aimed at having a single Groton Trails Network, connected by the only safe crossing of the Nashua River for non-motorized vehicles -- Fitch's Bridge. Through the efforts of the Trails Committee over the past 15 years, there are now trail networks on both sides of the river that connect all the way to the bridge. This is a once-in-a-hundred years event, and it is the biggest single enhancement we have seen to the Groton Trails network."
Speakers at the event, introduced by Groton's Town Manager Mark Haddad, included state Sen. Eileen Donoghue, state Rep. Sheila Harrington, Selectman Peter Cunningham, Montachusett Joint Transportation Committee representative David Manugian, Marion Stoddart, a longtime advocate for the cleanup and continued health of the Nashua River, and Jean Fitch Best. Music was provided by John Wiesner and members of the Pebbled Bottom River Kids.
Donoghue and Harrington each read and presented a citation to the town, followed by Cunningham, who announced that Sept.15 will be known as "Fitch's Bridge Day."
"This endeavor is a tribute to the people who attend Town Meeting and us as a community, as to what we value," Cunningham said. "The bridge provides an incredible vista up and down the river."
Jean Fitch Best and Zelda Fitch Moore, sisters of the late Groton resident Harlan Fitch, were also in attendance. Sister Hilda Fitch, of Littleton, was unable to attend. Best spoke eloquently with the crowd, sharing an amazing family history.
"During the reign of King George III, Zachariah Fitch was an indentured servant in 1636 and eventually became a free man. He settled in the Bedford/Reading area," Best said, explaining just how far back her family connections extended. "Everything you drank, everything you ate, everything you wore, you made with your hands ... your own labor."
Best ran through the history of several generations, mentioning that there was once a ferry system before the bridge, allowing farmers to reach their properties across the river. The early wooden bridge structure was washed away more than once from rain, storm and ice, and "...between 1908 and 1965, a metal bridge was built and stood in its place."
The Fitch family continued to grow and, over time, they came to own, "... lumber mills, grist mills, cider mills, and farms," Best said. "They were busy, hard-working people. ... My brother, Harlan Fitch, recognized the beauty of rural Groton and once a homesteader, became too old to work."
Both Stoddart and Manugian, a civil engineer, were given great credit for their time and effort in assisting with the completion of the bridge. When Stoddart first called upon Manugian to help with the project 10 years ago, Manugian said to his wife, "It's Marion Stoddart asking ... how can I say no?" and added, "It's a little bridge ... how long can it take?" getting a chuckle out of the crowd. Yet Manugian recognized the fact that 10 years, in the span of the 300-year history of Fitch's Bridge, is "... small by comparison." He said he is proud to be part of an activity that helped to turn the town into a community.
Stoddart said the committee realized that more than 70 individuals and 40 town boards helped to see the Fitch's Bridge project through to completion.
"We would like to especially recognize three members of the community who have been deceased -- Frank Belitsky, Vic Burton, and Harlan Fitch," she said. "Additionally, for their incredible effort, we'd like to recognize Jim Western and Richard Chilcoat. ... Most importantly, West Groton resident David Manugian's commitment to time and expertise to the building of this bridge was unparalled."
To conclude the ceremony, with Stoddart at one end of Fitch's Bridge and Manugian at the other, scissors in hand, they each cut the ceremonial ribbons, opening the bridge for all to walk across over the beautiful Nashua River -- creating a passageway for pedestrians, bicyclists, and equestrians that will serve residents for years to come.