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Project documenting Pennsylvania's historic bridges

| Sunday, Nov. 24, 2002

When the Scotch-Irish, Welsh, Germans and English first settled this area, the surrounding hills, mountains, rivers, furrows, streams and valleys created a natural need for bridges. Bridges guaranteed smooth and quick transportation over rough or impossible terrain. Thanks to the Historic American Engineering Record-National Parks Service and PennDOT, Pennsylvania's abundance of historic bridges are being documented prior to destruction or preservation.

“We're trying to move away from record and demolish, that's where a management plan comes in,” said Kara Russell, the primary liaison between PennDOT and the HAER-NPS. “Our intention, with bringing in HAER, is when we take down historic bridges because they don't meet current needs, we're obligated by law to create a complete record of the bridges with photographs and documentation.

“Some will be demolished and replaced, but the future isn't certain, we could find a way to preserve some bridges,” she said.

Eric DeLony, chief of the HAER-NPS, hopes his team's documentation efforts will result in more preservation and work with existing structures rather than the unpleasant alternative, especially because of Pennsylvania's unique circumstances.

“Pennsylvania has one of the richest and most remarkable surviving number of historic bridges dating from the 18th and 19th centuries than any other state in the union,” he said. DeLony, who has more than 25 years of background and experience studying bridges, said the reason HAER-NPS took on the in-depth study of bridges in Pennsylvania was “because of the outstanding variety and quality of bridges that survive in the commonwealth.”

Twenty bridges were documented in summer 2002, with 20 more slated for possible study in 2003. HAER-NPS has been studying Pennsylvania bridges since 1986 and the Library of Congress ( has detailed HAER records on many already, including the West Penn Bridge, the Three Sisters Bridges and the George Westinghouse Bridge in Allegheny County.

Documenting history

The study's historian assigned to western Pennsylvania, Richard Vidutis, of Silver Spring, Md., explained that the bridges included metal truss and reinforced concrete. He said that studying such structures requires primary documents generated at the time of construction.

Local city or township governments are often the holders of such information and can provide answers to questions, such as who designed the bridge, who built it, why was it built, what did the original engineer's drawings look like, on whose land was it built, how much did it cost, etc. Routine facts like these were recorded in bridge books, road books, land titles and wills. Even local histories and newspaper archives can provide clues to these answers.

A typical paper trail, according to the study's eastern Pennsylvania historian, Linda Phipps from Oakland, Calif., includes meeting minutes from county commissioners, borough councils or boards of township supervisors.

“One often finds useful contextual information from such accounts, such as the size of the bridge building budget for the year and relative cost of that particular bridge in comparison with others built at the same time,” she explained. Hence, a good deal can be learned about life, business and even culture in a region at the time of a bridge's construction.

In a perfect world, all documents would be in perfect, logical and accessible order, but some townships come up short. “The frustrations came at the local level when time and again I could not find primary documentation,” Vidutis said, adding, “This was not true is all cases, but happened enough that it is possible to see a trend.”

Phipps agreed and offers a possible explanation beyond simple ignorance or laziness. “Often local governments (are) pressed for storage space and, not realizing the value of such documents as expense ledgers or meeting minutes, discard them,” she says.

Another good source of firsthand information is the older generation, but Vidutis had another unpleasant surprise on his fact-finding missions. “For the first time I was not able to find old locals who remembered this or that or may have had old photos.

“I felt such a void as I stared at a reinforced concrete bridge from 1910 for which there were no records in the courthouse, no newspaper articles, and the oldest person in the area knew nothing about it. (I) might as well been looking at a Stone-Age implement,” he says.

Preserving a history of transportation

The reason to document these bridges, according to DeLony, is to encourage preservation and to provide a historical record and perspective on both America's transportation and overall history. “The United States is the foremost technological country in the world, and one of the best examples of our engineering and architectural achievements are our bridges,” DeLony said.

To complicate things, DeLony says bridges are one of the most threatened historic resources due to the rehabilitation of the nation's road system. “This places older bridges in jeopardy because they were designed on farm to market roads for horse and buggy traffic. So we're racing against time to get a permanent record into the Library of Congress and preserve representative examples,” he says.

Among the 20 structures documented in last summer's project were two regional bridges, Coverts Crossing Bridge near New Castle in Lawrence County and a Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge on Township Road 898 near St. Vincent College in Unity Township, Westmoreland County.

Bridge No. 13: Coverts Crossing Bridge

John W. Covert was a well-known physician from the New Castle area of Lawrence County born in 1837, and his short obituary mentions the ancestral Coverts coming from Holland. But according to Vidutis' findings, little else has been recorded about the Coverts and their settlement of the land surrounding Coverts Crossing.

Although the area around Coverts Crossing has been populated by American Indians back to the Late Archaic and Late Woodland periods, the first Coverts Crossing Bridge was built in 1887 at Covert's Ford by the Morse Bridge Co. of Youngstown, Ohio. Vidutis found that residents of Union, Mahoning and North Beaver Townships complained about frequent highway flooding that made travel to New Castle difficult. The result of these petitions was the first bridge that carried Covert Road over the Mahoning River.

This bridge became an important social and economic center in local farmers' lives because of the nearby gristmill, the Cross-Cut Canal (part of the Pennsylvania Canal system) and the Lawrence Railroad stop called Coverts Station.

“Lawrence County documents suggest that the Coverts Crossing Bridge consists of two distinct bridge segments – a reused bridge at the south end and a newly erected one at the north end. This would explain the bridge's apparent non-standardization, or mix, of design and construction,” Vidutis wrote in his comprehensive report.

Bridge No. 14: PRR TR898

The two-lane Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge along Township Road 898 in Westmoreland County just south of Latrobe was another one of Richard Vidutis' charges this summer. He says documenting this bridge was difficult because no documentation was found at the county courthouse or at the Westmoreland Historic Society.

Vidutis says A.G. Lichtenstein and Associates conducted a major inventory of Pennsylvania bridges in the late 1990s resulting in the following comments about Bridge No. 14: “The main span of this three-span metal bridge is 157 feet long, a total length of 228 feet, and is 20 feet wide. It is a pin-connected double intersection Warren deck truss with subdivided panels; the truss is 20 feet nine inches deep. The whole structure is supported on ashlar abutments. The asphalt deck of the flooring system is supported on railroad ties.

This fact suggests that the bridge is significant as a rare example of type and design, is remarkably complete and its idiosyncratic design illustrates the evolution of metal truss bridges.”

Vidutis talked to Henry Fitz, the Westmoreland County engineer, and discovered that whatever bridge documents may still exist would be with the current owners of the rail line running beneath the bridge, the Norfolk Southern Railroad Co. in Atlanta or Norfolk, Va. “So far I have had little success finding out who might have the documents,” he says.

And his best guess at when this bridge was built is sometime between 1847, when the Pennsylvania Railroad began construction of the line, and 1852 when the line entered Pittsburgh.

Selection criteria

DeLony had the unenviable task of narrowing the choice of bridges to be studied from 700 down to 120 and then down to 40. Selection criteria included being outstanding examples of different types of bridges such as stone arch, metal truss or reinforced concrete and being manufactured by a regional bridge building company such as the Keystone Bridge Co., Penn Bridge Co. or Morse Bridge Co.

Plus, all 40 bridges selected to be studied over three years (2002 – 2004) are nonstate and nonfederal aid bridges, meaning they are owned and maintained by counties or municipalities.

“That's the most difficult thing going from 120 to 40, but I feel very lucky to document the commonwealth's 40 best bridges,” DeLony said, his affection for the state's bridges obvious in his tone. “We've captured most of the outstanding historic bridges of Pennsylvania.”

DeLony said he “loves” the Smithfield Street Bridge and the Three Sisters Bridges in Pittsburgh and admitted his particular passion is focusing on the most threatened bridges.

“Metal truss is the most threatened type of bridge because it's rare they'll be able to service modern autos and truck traffic,” he said, adding, “Hopefully we'll save a few so future generations will have some idea of how metal trusses were made.”

PennDOT's management plan

In 2000, Kara Russell says PennDoT completed a four-year study that identified all of the state's bridges aged 40 years and older. “We already know whether a bridge is considered historic. HAER does documentation of individual bridges with more detailed information about specific materials used in a particular bridge. They provide large format photos and a more in-depth historical narrative,” she said.

Russell said PennDOT plans to incorporate these details on the bridges into its planning strategy, providing more information for the decision-making process. In the past, Russell said, these older bridges weren't studied thoroughly, and modern engineers are often hesitant to apply current techniques and safety analyses to the historic structures.

A pilot management program is being tested on the stone-arch bridges around Philadelphia. Russell says if the plan works, and definitive results are expected by fall 2003, PennDOT is hoping to apply it to truss bridges. “Pennsylvania has the biggest collection of stone-arch bridges, and those have the same problem as truss bridges, it's difficult to apply modern engineering,” Russell said.

The pilot plan will look at the whole population of bridges, including those that are locally owned. “It's more than just deciding which bridges to save; it's also figuring out what needs to be done with each individual bridge to make it safe, like what's appropriate maintenance for a historic bridge,” Russell said.

Spreading the word

Eric DeLony says these historic bridges are “unsung heroes” that few people know about. “It's important to bring them to the surface. Part of the reason for this study is to raise awareness of these bridges so rehabilitation will be done to reinforce the original architecture. The Smithfield Street Bridge is one outstanding example,” DeLony says.

“I've been doing this for almost 30 years and have a sense for historic bridges all over the country. I think I can claim that HAER has helped save representative examples of historic bridges, and we've had a tremendous record of illuminating the value of these bridges.

“It causes local commissioners to ask, 'Is there any way to save this bridge?' Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no, but we get the ball rolling,” DeLony said.

Amanda Lynch is a Pittsburgh freelance writer for the Tribune-Review.

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