Wellfleet's High Toss Bridge Road: the Name Implies a Warning
There’s a little dirt road in our town that’s been getting a lot of attention lately. Its name is High Toss Bridge Road, and how it got that unusual name is a story in itself, but I’ll save that for last.
High Toss Bridge Road is a 1000-foot long earthen causeway that crosses the marshes of the Herring River Valley between Griffin Island and the Wellfleet mainland. Today there is a small culvert where it crosses the river, but originally a wooden bridge spanned it. (That gets us the “Bridge” part of the name.)
The road is significant both historically and environmentally. Historically, it’s an old road. No one knows exactly how old, but it shows up on the 1848 topographical map of Wellfleet, and may be much older than that. It was built, historians assume, to connect Griffin Island to the mainland, and was the sole land access to that island until the early 20th century.
Environmentally, High Toss Bridge Road is significant because it is right in the middle of the Herring River Restoration Project, about which I have spoken before. Basically, this is a long-term, town-approved project, using state and federal funds, to right the environmental wrongs created by the building of the Herring River Dike in 1907. The effect of the dike was effectively to seriously constrict the tidal flow into the river valley, turning a rich, thriving salt marsh and navigable estuary into an environmentally impoverished, polluted, impassable brackish wetland. The stated goal of the restoration project is to restore full tidal flow into the estuary, returning it to the state it was in before the dike was built. It’s a major restoration project that may take up to 100 years to fully complete.
And here’s where High Toss Bridge Road comes in. The road crosses the lower part of the river valley. Proponents of the restoration project, including Town officials, assert that the only feasible way to fully restore the river valley is to remove the road and the culvert, thus insuring full tidal flow. A smaller group of residents wants the road to be maintained for recreational access by pedestrians, cyclists, horses, and light vehicles. A petitioned article by these citizens asking to maintain the road was soundly defeated at Wellfleet’s town meeting last month. Presumably, the fate of High Toss Bridge Road is now sealed.
But here’s the hitch: we know that High Toss Bridge Road predates the Herring River Dike by at least a half-century, probably longer. The question is, was the Herring River Valley a fully functioning salt marsh estuary before the dike was built, but after Old High Toss Bridge Road was in place? We can’t know for sure, but old maps, photographs, and written accounts indicate that it was. And if it was, does that mean that, in theory at least, the old road could remain and still fulfill the goals of the restoration project. But after last month’s vote, that question now seems moot.
Oh, and the origin of the name? Well, we’ll probably never know that for certain either. But several years ago I met a native and life-long resident of Wellfleet who gave me this explanation: “Well, you see,” he said, “the wooden bridge that was there before the culvert? It was one of those high, bowed bridges that allowed boats to pass under it. And it was always said that if you took a car across that bridge at too great a speed, well, you might just get “tossed” into the creek.”
High – Toss – Bridge – get it?