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Bridge connecting Cambridge and Charlestown opens for walkers, bikers

Raffi Berberian carried Sebastien Escobar and walked with Isabella and Raul Escobar across North Bank Bridge.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Raffi Berberian carried Sebastien Escobar and walked with Isabella and Raul Escobar across North Bank Bridge.

Dozens of Charlestown residents lined up beneath the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge on Friday as if waiting for a starter’s gun to go off. Some 698 feet away in ­Cambridge, an equally anxious contingent stood ready to charge in their direction.

Between them lay the largest pedestrian and bicyclist bridge ever built in Boston, a $10 million, steel-piped architectural wonder dubbed the North Bank Bridge.

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Since railroad tracks were laid across the Cambridge-Charlestown line more than 170 years ago, moving on foot between the two communities has been difficult at best. Not anymore.

Moments after Governor Deval Patrick snipped a ceremonial ribbon, opening the bridge to the public after two years of construction, everyone from dog walkers to mothers pushing strollers to bicyclists flooded on, greeting those from the opposite side with smiles and hugs. A colonial-garbed militiaman even bellowed, “Welcome to Charlestown, governor,” as Patrick strode across.

“In a few years, everyone will take this walk for granted,” said Maureen Donovan, a ­retired computer specialist who lives in the Charlestown Navy Yard. “But it’s really special for those of us who’ve had to drive or take shuttle buses to get where we want. It just brings us much closer to everything.”

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The bridge, built by the Massa­chusetts Department of Transportation and the Department of Conservation and Recreation, is the first of three ­pedestrian and bicyclist bridges expected to open along the Charles River between the ­Museum of Science and the Charles River Locks. That stretch has long been known as the “lost half-mile,” because it was home to rail yards, potato sheds, and jail parking lots, making it largely inaccessible for recreational uses.

If the other bridges are completed as planned, they will connect three parks built by the Big Dig: Cambridge’s North Point Park, Charlestown’s Paul Revere Park, and Boston’s Nashua Street Park, forming their own version of an emerald necklace. Bicyclists, joggers, and river walkers will be able to move almost seamlessly ­between the rest of the river, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, and Boston Harbor.

“People’s mental maps don’t make the connection between North Point Park and the ­Harbor, but they’re both right there,” said Roger Boothe, longtime director of urban design for Cambridge. “All of a sudden you [can] go on this cool bridge and get these cool views.”

That the North Bank Bridge was built is a marvel in more ways that one.

Standing atop Spaulding ­Rehabilitation Hospital’s roof for a clear look, bridge engineers had to visualize a structure that could rise 18 feet over four sets of railroad tracks and a Duck Tours boat ramp, with just a 12-foot gap between the highway and a century-old drawbridge booth to work within, said Karl Haglund, the DCR’s project manager of the New Charles River Basin, the official name of the lost half-mile. They settled on a 698-foot-long passing made of steel that twists like a stretched-out double helix.

“There aren’t many things in this life that public works does that are elegant,” said Ivey St John, a 40-year Charlestown resident. “But, boy, this is.”

Money was another hurdle. The Central Artery/Tunnel Project had planned to build the bridges since the early 1990s, but dissolved before it could do so, leaving only $30.5 million to finish the bridges, as well as other park improvements. That was not enough.

The project remained in limbo until 2009, when the state was awarded a $30 million stimulus grant from the federal government to fill the funding gap.

“It was manna from heaven,” said Joel Bard, president of the New Charles River Basin Citizens Advisory Committee, a volunteer group that has worked with state officials from the start to develop the area.

While obstacles remain, plans call for the remaining two bridges to be built by 2015. By then, the New Charles River Basin could be a dynamically evolving neighborhood. EF ­Education First is expected to expand into a 300,000-square-foot office building next to North Point Park, with a restaurant overlooking the river and a skateboard park. Construction on the skateboard park is ­expected to begin next year.

Hundreds of apartments are being planned within walking distance of parks on both sides of the river, and when the Somerville Community Path is eventually extended, it will stretch directly to the North Bank Bridge, creating an unprecedented thoroughfare to the Charles River for cyclists from as far west as Bedford.

“These bridges are at the very core of the development around the river, connecting the river to the harbor, connecting Cambridge to Boston,” said Bob O’Brien, a member of the citizens advisory committee. “We hoped for all this 20 years ago, and now, it’s being realized beyond all our expectations.”

Peter DeMarco can be reached at demarco@globe.com.
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