When it opened in 1950, the Mystic River Bridge was the largest bridge in New England, carrying US1 traffic north from the Athens of the east to scenic New Hampshire and Maine. Twenty-six-million vehicles crossed it each year -- on the lower deck going north or the upper deck going south. From the toll booth on the upper deck, you could see the majestic Boston skyline, as shown here.
Last summer, all toll booths were removed and traffic began flowing non-stop thanks to electronic toll collection. But for half-a-century, toll-takers were eccentric, sometimes brilliant people. One year, seven toll-takers quit their jobs after passing the Massachusetts State Bar exam to become lawyers. Former Boston mayor Kevin White began public service in the fraternity of toll-takers, who were trained to keep traffic moving by talking as little as possible. Paul Thomas, who collected tolls for 26 years on the upper deck, was often asked by drivers "how do I get to Harvard from here?" He answered with two words, "Study hard!" But toll booth attendants sometimes warmed drivers' hearts. Lee Hanson of Orlando, FL recalls a day in 1973 when she was a 32-year-old widow heading home from Boston over the bridge. She was exhausted after a hard day as an advertising agent. She had to work long hours to pay someone to babysit her two small children. She had no reason to be happy. As she approached the toll booth she rolled down her window and stuck out her arm to hand the toll collector the coins. To her surprise, she recalls, "when I stopped, the young man gently grasped my hand in both of his, looked into my eyes and said, 'Where have you been? The martinis are warm!'" She grinned and chuckled all the way home.
My Mystic River Bridge memories come from 1984, when friends and I often crossed it en route to antique shops along the Maine coast. The toll that year was 50 cents, and we would always hand the toll collector two one-dollar bills with the remark, "the three cars behind us are with us." He'd snatch the cash, and from our rear view mirror we'd watch him wave the next three cars through the toll booth free. We hoped it made their day. It always made ours.