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The Saga of James H.


For years the Singing Bridge was one of the most famous bridges in Maine. It was
replaced in 1999. It was seventy-seven years old when it was phased out and a new
concrete bridge put into operation.

The official name of the Singing Bridge was the Hancock-Sullivan Bridge. It joined
the towns of Hancock and Sullivan in down east Maine. It crossed the gut linking
Taunton Bay and Sullivan Harbor. Sullivan Harbor is part of the larger Frenchman's
Bay, which in turn is part of the Bay of Fundy. Because of the age of the Singing
Bridge, you might think everyone would be happy that a new structure has replaced
it. Not everyone is though. They miss the singing of the old bridge.

The old Hancock-Sullivan Bridge was known as the Singing Bridge because of the
sound tires made as they passed over it. The Singing Bridge was made of iron and
steel. You could see through it down to the water. It was one of those turn of the
twentieth century bridges which was built so that snow could filter through it. At
the time of its construction the Singing Bridge was viewed as state-of-the-art
bridge construction. It was also viewed as too beautiful a structure for its
utilitarian purpose and officials said it cost too much. In fact the only reason
the Singing Bridge was built as it was had to do with the man who built it. That
man was James Kerr. Kerr refused to cut costs and give in to the Maine authorities
who wanted a more mundane and traditional bridge.

James Kerr, the man who built the Singing Bridge, was Nova Scotia born and like
many Bluenose natives he first made his living at sea off the Grand Banks. In fact
he went to sea before he even reached the teenage years. Then, when he had had
enough of life on the rolling deep, he decided to try his luck on land. That
decision led to Kerr becoming one of the most respected and successful building
contractors in New England if not the United States as a whole. Kerr's greatest
construction project was the mammoth Oxford Paper Company plant in Rumford, Maine.
At the time the plant was built it was the largest paper making facility under one
roof in the world. Under its dynamic owner Hugh Chisholm, Oxford Paper would
eventually form part of the base for International Paper.

At the peak of his career in the construction industry, James Kerr headed a firm
that employed some 500 workers. Besides the Singing Bridge, Kerr's building
projects included dams, and roads, including the first major concrete highway in
northern New England. However, his specialty was the construction of massive

James H. Kerr was born in Pugwash on March 7, 1874. His parents were Ephraim and
Charlotte (Heather) Kerr. Ephraim Kerr was born in Tatamagouche and his wife in
Wallace. In later life, James Kerr would claim Clan Kerr tartan as his own. The
Scots tradition would lead to a lifelong friendship with timber and paper pulp
baron Hugh Chisholm, the owner of Oxford Paper. Chisholm was also a Canadian,
coming from Ontario.

The Saga of James H. Kerr/ page 2

As an adult James Kerr made few references to his childhood in Pugwash. He was
proud of going to sea as a cabin boy at twelve and prouder still in becoming
captain of a ship at eighteen. When Kerr left home as a preteen, he had five
siblings, three brothers and two sisters. Ephraim Kerr was a simple labourer and
the family was often hard pressed to make ends meet. James Kerr went to sea so
there would be one less mouth at the family dining table to fill.
James Kerr left Nova Scotia for Maine in 1897, settling in Rumford the same year.
Here he founded what would become one of the largest construction companies in New
England of the day.

Simply put, when James Kerr came to Rumford, the town belonged to Hugh Chisholm.
Between 1882 and 1890, Chisholm and an associate had bought up most of the town.
The reason for this investment was that Rumford Falls on the Androscoggin River
had the potential to produce more power than any other three towns in New England
combined. After securing most of Rumford's real estate Chisholm went on to lay out
the community as he saw fit. This even extended to naming streets. (There would be
a Kerr Street.) In 1893, Chisholm's first Rumford company, the Rumford Falls Paper
Company was producing sixty tons of paper daily.

Rumford Falls Paper wasn't enough for Chisholm, however. This dissatisfaction led
to his relationship with James Kerr and the founding of Oxford Paper.

Oxford Paper was chartered by the State of Maine in 1899. This was just two years
after James Kerr had come to Rumford and it was done only when Kerr made the
commitment to build the greatest paper pulp mill in the world. It was an audacious
promise made by an equally audacious man.

It goes without saying that James Kerr kept faith with Hugh Chisholm. Oxford Paper
opened in 1901. The next year it was producing three million postal cards a day.
This production would increase to 125 tons of paper daily.

James Kerr went on to build banks, theaters, a myriad of roads and the first great
parking garage in New England, a five story structure in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

In an interview appearing in a Maine Publicity Bureau publication in 1927, James

Kerr said that the one thing he regretted more than any other was that his "life
of unusual strenuousness prevented his seafaring very much." The occasion of the
interview was the Hancock-Sullivan Bridge, the "Singing Bridge" being recognized
as "an ornate and beautiful structure."

The life of James Kerr is worthy of being termed a "saga." To go from cabin boy on
a Bay of Fundy Grand Banks schooner to the head of a groundbreaking construction
company is a true odyssey.

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