Full text of Theodore Burrs letter
to Reuben Field, bridge builder
from Waterford NY,
dated Feb 26, 1815
"Dear Sir,
I can inform you now, with a considerable degree of satisfaction, that I have
at length succeeded in getting up the long arch at McCalls Ferry. This arch is,
without doubt, the greatest in the world. Its length, between the abutment and
pier, is three hundred and sixty feet, four inches; the chord line of the arch,
three hundred sixty seven feet. The width of the main part of the bridge is
thirty two feet; the wings of the pier spread eleven feet, eight inches on each
side, which makes a base of fifty-five feet, four inches. At the abutment, the
wings spread seventeen feet each, which makes a base of of sixty-six feet.
The altitude or rise of the arch is thirty-one feet. The arch is double, and the
two segments are combined by king-posts seven feet in length between the
shoulders, and are united to the arch by lock-work. Between the king-posts
are truss-braces and counteracting braces. The arch stands firm and
remarkably easy, without the least struggling in any part of the work.

It will be most difficult to convey to you by discription, the process by which
we finally succeeded in surmounting the almost unconquerable difficulties
opposed to its erection, not only by nature, but by all the elements combined.

In the first place, we raised it on floats lying in the water, ranged along the
shore nearly a quarter of a mile below the abutment. The floats were placed at
proper distances, with their ends to the shore, and on each of them were
raised two bents or frames, varying in height to correspond with the curve of
the arch. This made sixteen bents, on which the grand and enormous structure
was raised, amidst tremendous storms and tempests, accompanied with floods
and whirls and bursting of waters. The scene at times was truly terrific.
Frequently, in the darkest of nights we were under the necessity of going
between the floats, and from one to the other, on small timbers, over a depth
of one hundred feet of water, in order to either shorten or lenghten out the
ropes by which they were fastened, and to brace off or haul in the floats as
the water rose and fell. It took $1,500 worth of ropes to stay the works
against the flood and storms that we often had to contend with; and you must
understand that storm and wind are much more frequent and tremendous at
this place, than almost any other, owing to the great height of the mountains
which closely border the river on each side.

From the time we commenced till we got the arch on the floats was ten weeks;
during which time the water was nearly stationary, but continually  either
rising or falling. At one time it was nearly twenty feet above common low water
mark; but in general it rose and fell from ten to twelve feet.

You will now observe that the arch stood lenght-ways up and down the river
along the shore of and uneven points and projections of rocks, which kept us
always in jeopardy, in consequence of the rising and falling of the water, as I
before observed. On the 7th of December, we had the whole in readiness to
move up to the abutment, and on the same day the anchor-ice began to run a
little. The next (which was the day we had fixed upon to move the arch to its
place) the ice ran in still greater quantities, , and about one oclock it stopped
for the space of about a half a mile, and began to crowd the floats. It
continued to move for more than one hundred miles above, where the river is
from one and a half to two miles wide; whereas, at this place you will observe
it is only six hundred and nine feet in high water and in low water the whole
river runs in the space of three hundred and forty-eight feet. In this state it
has been sounded by Doctors Preston, Marshall, and Bailey, gentlemen
interested in the bridge,and ascertained to be one hundred fifty feet in depth;
and it will perhaps not be improper to observe here, that taking a view of the
great extent of country through which the Susquehanna runs, and the great
and innumerable smaller streams that empty into it in its course, there is in all
probability running in this space of three hundred forty-eight, and under the
long arch, at least fifteen times the quantity of water that passes under the
Union Bridge at Waterford.

The ice continued to run during the 9th, 10th, and 11th, and pressed so hard
against the floats that it raised up the outer ends some two feet; others three
feet; some less and some none at all; so that the scaffolding began to stand in
all directions, the braces breaking and bursting out the spikes and bolts and
the arch careening heavy twords the shore, touching only here and there on
the timbers which supported it; but as yet it had sustained no injuries. The
only chance of saving it now depended on the ice either becoming strong
enough to support it, or gradualy melting away so as to go off easy, without
tearing the whole with it. I determined upon trying it on the ice, and on the
12th we fixed our capstan on the ice, and fastened ropes to it and to the arch
to sustain it from falling, and also put some braces between it & the rocks on
the shore.

From this time till Christmas we could do but little, in consequence of a thaw
which took all the ice out of the river except about a half a mile that first
stopped; which we also expected would go, but it did not, soon after the
weather became severe and having a mountain of ice upon us, the average
height of which, for about a mile above and below us, was ten feet above the
surface of the water at the shores. It did not, however, effect our works so
much as might have been expected. The outer ends of the floats had settled
down about a foot by the thaw; but this hove them up something worse than
they were at first. At the same time the whole body of ice moved down from
twenty-five to thirty feet, which bore so hard against the floats, that they
pressed so hard against the rocks, that it broke and mashed more than half of
them to pieces. Still the arch remained un-hurt and the scaffolding stood
beyond expectation.

On the 28th we commenced leveling the ice, in order to take the scaffolding
and the arch off the floats on to it. I had 18 men employed at that business
and I presume that on average they were in up to their arms, forty times each
in one day. But it will be necessary to explain to you the nature of the ice here.
It is made up of floating ice from one-fourth inch to two inches thick. It
forms from fifty to two hundred and fifty miles above the bridge where the
water is not very rapid, but very wide;and in some winters runs constantly, for
three or four weeks without stopping. From the head of Turkeyhill falls to
within three-fourths of a mile of the bridge, a distance of about fifteen miles,
there is almost one continued fall, and the bed of the river abounding with
rocks that break the ice very fine. The river being so long and wide above,
there is an immense quantity of this ice formed, and so very narrow at the
bridge, that there it becomes an immense mass from twelve to fifteen feet
deep before it stops. When this takes  place, all the ice from above drives
beneath into deep water, until it becomes from sixty to eighty feet deep; and
you may, by digging down three feet take a pole of sixty feet long, and with
the strength of your hands run it down the whole length, and find no
termination of what is called the mush ice.

On the 29th, we began to bridge a space of about fifty feet from the floats,
which was soft, in order to move the arch sideways to where the ice was
stronger. It took us from the 29th to the 8th of January to prepare one-half
of the arch for moving. This was Sunday; and by evening we had eight
capstans, each with a double-fold tackle fast to it, and with the assistance of
about fifty citizens of the vicinity we made a move of four feet.

On the morning of the 9th, we four-folded all the capstans, except one, and
moved one-half of the arch off sideways, forty-six feet, on to the runners one
hundred and eighty feet long. On the 10th, we fixed the cross-runners (upon
which we moved it sideways) on to the runners that extended lengthways with
the arch, and confined all tight together. On the 12th in the forenoon, it
rained; in the afternoon we leveled the ice for a road , before it would freeze
again. The 13th, we moved the arch seventy-seven feet; the weather soft.
14th, we made some rollers; the weather still soft, but snowing. The 15th, had
but few hands; moved the arch fifty feet. 16th, we introduced rollers
everywhere, and moved the arch 217 feet in three hours. 17th, made a move
upwards of 300 feet. 18th and 19th got up the one-half of the arch.

We now commenced upon the other half which we got up in eight days. Now we
wheeled to the right and left, one-half of the arch to the abutment, and the
other half to the pier; fitted the buts to their places; cut off the
scaffold-posts at the bottom some more, some less, from one to twelve inches,
so as to bring the whole arch to its perfect height and curve, and then united
to centre. On Monday the 30th, about nine o'clock at night, we had everything
keyed up, and on Tuesday morning it stood of itself. Along the middle way of
the arch the scaffolding had fallen away six or seven inches; but less and less
towards the abutment and pier. To understand the cause of this, you must
understand,  that there is a regular ebbing and flowing in the river in this
place, once in twenty-four hours, of from two to four feet, whech has a
proportionate effect on the ice, causing it to rise and fall from fifteen inches
to two feet, which at the same time is continually working itself down stream,
slowly and imperceptibly to the eye.

On Tuesday morning, as I observed, the arch supported itself. We examined
every part of it, drove some keys, and made everything tight as possible. In
the afternoon we began to cut away the scaffolding, and got down two-thirds
of it before dark; then stopped for an hour for refreshment, and before we
began again, had two large fires made, on each side, about sixty feet from the
abutment or shore. We then set to cutting down the remaining part of the
scaffolding, which was completed about half past eight o'clock. The whole now
exhibited the grandest spectacle I ever saw. Aided by the light of the fires,
we could plainly see the shore, and the arch rising from the abutment and
extending itself west out of sight. It was a joyful moment to my brave fellows;
and you may well suppose they gave way to impulse, in loud and repeated
hurras. The next day was set apart as a day of rejoicing.

The centre of the arch is sixty-one feet from common low water to the lower,
and seventy feet four inches to the upper segment, and fifty-two and
sixty-one feet four inches from the surface of the ice when it was put on.
During the whole of this struggle, the humane fellings and kind disposition of
the inhabitants, for twelve to fourteen miles distance, on both sides of the
river, were manifested to a degree that I believe was scarcely ever equalled.
They voluntarily assisted from day to day; so that from the 8th of January to
the 1st of Febuary, I had of this class from forty to one hundred and twenty
men everyday; and none ever displayed more zeal, or behaved with more order
and decorum, in any service, where the most exact discipline was rigorously
enforced. They came early, stayed till dark, and returned home after night.
Some attended every day, whilst others at times would ride day and night to
notify and bring on troops. One day we would call on Lancaster county, the
next York, and sometimes on both in the same day, and on the most part we
did not want for men. To move an arch of such an enormous weight, fifty and
sixty feet in the air, was no small business; and had it not been for the
friendship of these people, I almost doubt whether I I should ever have
effected the object.

What is perhaps remarkable, is the fact, that (although liquer was handed in
great abundance) there was but one man that was injured; that was Augustus
Stoughton. He fell fifty-four feet, hit on the braces twice, then into the
water. He in a few days was again at work; and no other person was hurt.

On the whole we were from the 1st of October till the 1st of Febuary, in doing
what might have been done in four weeks of steady weather, without floods.

It is a long arch, and you have a long letter; yet it does not explain to you
one-half the difficulties we had to encounter, in getting it to its destined place

I am, sir, respectfully yours,
Theodore Burr"
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