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Bridgeville took name from landmark bridge on Black Horse Trail

| Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Our review of the most recent “Bridgeville Remembered” presentation did not include the discussion of the landmark bridge, from which our community takes its name. We think this topic warrants its own column.

People of my generation were taught that Bridgeville takes its name from a bridge that carried the Washington Pike across Chartiers Creek in the earliest days. We were told that the construction of the bridge resulted from a confrontation between an absentee landowner, Thomas Ramsey, and the local farmers.

Ramsey was pleased that the Black Horse Trail, the principal route between Washington, Pa., and Pittsburgh, in the late 18th century crossed Chartiers Creek on property he owned. He improved the crossing by grading the approach ramps on each side and by “paving” them by laying timbers crossways to improve traction for the horse- and-oxen-drawn wagons. In return for this improvement he stationed an agent at the crossing to collect a toll.

The initiation of this practice was not well received by the farmers who used the crossing to haul their goods to market. They promptly chased Ramsey's agent back to Virginia and announced their plans to build a proper bridge at the crossing.

Ramsey sought legal assistance in the dispute, but soon learned it was to no avail. In 1793 the Pennsylvania Legislature had passed an act governing “Navigable Waters.” It stated that any stream that could support the passage of commercial traffic was designated “navigable.” It also reported that the rights of landowners with property abutting navigable streams ended at the high water mark, not at the center of the stream.

On two previous occasions keelboats had been built at Canonsburg and used to move loads of flour down Chartiers Creek to the Ohio River and from there to New Orleans. Ramsey realized the futility of his cause and eventually sold his property to Moses Middleswarth.

The local farmers proceeded with their plans. Each one was assigned the task of providing half a dozen timbers, delivering them to the construction site, and then participating in the construction of the bridge. We are led to believe that this was accomplished in a very few days, much like an Amish “barn raising” today.

Unfortunately we don't know what the bridge looked like. The simplest bridge would have been a group of timbers spanning between piers on both sides of the creek, analogous to the concrete deck girders of today's bridge. The creek is about 50 feet wide at that point; the piers would have to be about 75 feet apart, much too far for practical timbers to span.

I suspect they would have chosen to span the creek with a pair of shallow timber trusses. Bridge technology may have been primitive in this area in 1800, but these same farmers were familiar with barn construction and especially with the timber trusses that support the barn roofs. My guess is that they erected a pair of trusses six feet high, with floor beams connecting them, then spiked planks on for floor boards.

I would have used “Howe” trusses with vertical posts every six feet and diagonals sloping upward from the shore to the middle of the truss. My 21st century calculations tell me that square timbers eight inches on a side would be adequate to support wagon loads of that era.

Connecting timbers two hundred years ago was much more difficult than it is today; they had nothing like the prefabricated steel connectors we use. Instead they had to rely on the “mortise and tenon” concept. The posts would have had tenons sticking out at each end, sized to fit neatly into mortices (slots) in the top and bottom members of the trusses. One inch diameter wooden pins would then be driven into pre-drilled holes through both members to secure the joint.

Assuming the bridge was built around 1800, it was too early for them to consider making it a covered bridge. We know that there was a covered bridge across Chartiers Creek in Carnegie in the mid 1800s; perhaps Bridgeville had one by then as well.

Once the bridge was finished, it became a landmark on the Black Horse Trail as well as on Noble's Trace, the east-west road Col. Henry Noble cut so he could run pack horse trains between Noblestown and Carlisle. He also established a storehouse at the bridge, where his road intersected the Black Horse Trail.

We're told that travelers soon planned to “meet at the bridge” and that this expression eventually became “meet you at Bridgeville,” thus providing our community with its name.

John Oyler, a columnist for Trib Total Media, can be reached at 412-343-1652 or joylerpa@comcast.net.

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