Wilmington is nearly 290 years old and for two-thirds of that time, it has been divided by a railroad track. When it was built in 1835, the Boston & Lowell Railroad installed bridges over the tracks to avoid having horse & wagons hit by locomotives.
That system worked quite well for nearly a century. But as time wore on, the bridges wore out. Into the 1960s, the town had seven old, rickety wooden bridges over the Lowell tracks. The town owned the roads leading up to the bridges, but the railroad owned the bridges.
Occasionally, a bridge would be damaged by a gravel truck, or maybe by an oversized railroad car. Or the railroad might close a bridge for repairs. In certain areas of town, this would present a serious problem. Yes, traffic could go to another bridge, unless that, too, was closed.
There was no coordination between the town departments and the railroad in planning road closures. The town often had to fight with the railroad over repairs to the bridges.
In June 1962, the railroad was called to repair the Nichols Street bridge, and then the Eames Street bridge. Those two bridges, at opposite ends of town, were an inconvenience, but not a serious problem.
Meanwhile, a major reconstruction project was underway on the Burlington Avenue bridge, Route 62, right in Wilmington Square.
In July, however, the town hit the “tri-fecta” of detours.
Most drivers in the area knew they could use Butters Row and Chestnut Street to reach Burlington Avenue. Or they could zig-zag through Cedar Street, Burt Road and Harris Street.
What are the chances that all three roads would be closed?
The town Water Department had a water main replacement project underway on Butters Row. At the same time, the Highway Department was repaving Cedar Street.
One report came in of a local taxi driver called to Avco for a passenger wanting to go to Concord. Knowing that the Burlington Avenue bridge was closed, the cabbie figured he could save time by going down Butters Row.
When he got there, he found that the Water Department had the road closed.
So the taxi driver headed over the Shawsheen Avenue bridge to cut through Cedar Street. But there he hit the Highway Department paving project.
The driver finally went to Aldrich Road, and then to Forest Street to Burlington Avenue, and on to Concord.
The cabbie had it easy, compared to an out-of-town truck driver traveling in the other direction. He came in from Burlington, headed east on Route 62, but was unable to cross the Burlington Avenue bridge. So he turned around and then took a right onto Harris Street, only to find that Cedar Street was being paved. He had to back up and turn the truck around.
Then he found Chestnut Street, a meandering country road, hardly a good truck route. But he was unable to go down Butters Row due to the water main installation. Again, he turned the truck around and drove back down Chestnut Street.
Then he found a woman on Chestnut Street, who told the story to the Town Crier. He didn’t ask her how to get onto Route 62 on the other side of the bridge. His question was more direct.
“Lady,” he said, “just tell me how to get out of this town!”
The railroad went bankrupt and the bridges were taken over by the state DPW. One by one, they have been replaced or removed. Only one wooden bridge remains, that being on Butters Row. Ironically, it was rebuilt about 40 years ago after a sewer installation damaged it.
However, since the sewer project did not include the bridge, and there were no plans ready for a new one, the bridge was rebuilt on the old design.