Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: April 1998 Volume 36 Number 2, Pages 51–59

Covered Bridges

Karl Klingelhoeffer

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Covered bridges delight artists, camera fans, tourists and all of us with their beauty and charm. They are seen by some as quaint or as picturesque or even as a throw-back to another age. They are all of that but, in this last decade of the twentieth century, they have also become more and more difficult to find as their numbers dwindle.

Fortunately, the landscape of Chester County is not completely devoid of covered bridges. In 1976 the late Arthur James, local historian, catalogued 98 sites where covered bridges once stood in the county (the earliest was built in 1807). The largest number ever simultaneously in use was 85 in the year 1899 when there were 221 bridges of all kinds in service. Just 15 covered bridges are left -­ twelve completely within the county and three spanning streams on Chester County's borders. Two of the fifteen are no longer used for public transportation and two more are owned privately which precludes public use. However, all of them can be seen and enjoyed for what they are -- a piece of our history.

Early in the settlement of Penn's colony, the need for roads to mill, market and meeting became apparent. Roads were a priority and also bridges to carry them over streams. Even small streams were an impediment to travel. Stone arch bridges were costly to build and most roads simply forded streams at places where the water was shallow. This was not too inconvenient during seasons of low water flow, but it proved to be a real hardship to the traveler and his team during winter's ice and snow and the high water spawned by melting snow and spring rains.

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Bridge building did not get underway with large permanent structures until after the Revolutionary War. History tells us that during the British invasion of Pennsylvania in 1777, the opposing armies both forded the Schuylkiil River in one September week, Washington at Parker Ford and Howe at Fatland Ford. While the British were in possession of Philadelphia, there was a pontoon bridge at the Schuylkill, and later a plank-floor bridge on floating logs. Still later, building of improved roads such as the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike, completed in 1794, required bridges at the Brandywine and Conestoga Creek crossings.

But even then the Schuylkill River at Philadelphia had not been permanently bridged. Crossings were made at the makeshift floating bridges or at the ferry, where a flat bottom boat carried travelers and their horses and wagons across the river. John T. Faris, early twentieth century writer of history, points out, "It is recorded that in 1770, the entire income of the city of Philadelphia was but eight hundred pounds, and that two hundred pounds of the amount came from the Market Street ferry, which had been taken over by the city."

Technology was not far advanced at the time, and when the decision to build a bridge was made, the choice of load bearing material was often wood. The use of wood in early bridges was due to its relative durability, low cost and local availability. Stone was heavy and difficult to transport, and as a result costly. Wooden bridges could be covered with a roof to keep rain off the deck to retard the process of aging and decay.

The first covered bridge built in this area was the so called "Permanent Bridge", located at the west end of High [Market] Street at the Schuylkill River in Philadel­phia. The bridges erected there up to 1786 had been of a temporary nature, and the community was demanding that the Schuylkill be spanned by one that would withstand storms and freshets. Scharf & Westcott, city historians, say, "Philadelphia's Councils resolved that a permanent bridge should be built, but as the city treasury was much depleted, they applied to the State for aid, suggesting that the ferry tolls, the floating bridge receipts and the auction dues be donated to the bridge fund."

The undertaking was dormant until the Legislature passed the act of March 16, 1798, incorporating a bridge company and constituting Richard Peters, John Perot, Godfrey Haga, Matthew McConnell, and William Sheaff to organize the "President, Directors and Company for erecting a permanent bridge over the River Schuylkill at or near the city of Philadelphia."

Five years were allowed for the construction of the bridge. The capital for the company was fixed at $150,000, with the provision that when toll receipts should

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exceed 15% of that amount, the surplus was to go toward freeing the bridge of toll charges. The Legislature also reserved the power to make it free after 25 years on the payment of its appraised value.

The cornerstone of the eastern abutment was laid on October 18, 1800. Engineer William Shank notes that a stone arch bridge was originally planned. Apparently the complexity of work required in constructing the two piers in the river led to a decision to complete the bridge with a wooden deck. The Eastern pier was first erected in a depth of water of 21 to 24 feet inside a coffer-dam. The Western pier, say Scharf & Westcott, "attended with greater difficulty, constant hazard and unavoidable expense," required a coffer-dam in which 800,000 feet of timber was employed, in a depth of water of 41 feet. No pier of regular masonry in so great a depth of water was known to exist anywhere else in the world. The masonry of this pier was begun on Christmas Day, 1802, and com­pleted in 41 days and nights, after seven months had been occupied in preparing the dam and retrieving its misfortunes. The heighth of the Eastern pier from its rock foundation was 40 feet, and that of the Western pier was 55 feet 9 inches. The resulting cost pushed the total expenditure to near $300,000.

The directors of the Schuylkill Permanent Bridge Company of Philadelphia were elected in 1801 to complete the bridge with a wooden superstructure.They hired Timothy Palmer, the best-known wood bridge builder in the country at the time, to complete the job. Palmer (1751-1821), a native of Newberryport, Massachu­setts, had patented his bridge design in 1797. He was one of the most ingenious of the pioneer bridge builders, and had made his mark building roofless, long­span wooden bridges over New England rivers, and also a span over the Potomac in Maryland.

Palmer and his workmen completed the structure using the two piers built earlier. The bridge had an overall length of 1300 feet. The center span was 195 feet long, and the two side spans each were 150 feet. It was sufficiently completed to open for traffic on January 1, 1805. Mainly through the efforts of Judge Richard Peters, president of the bridge company, a protective wood cover was added that same year. (Peters lived across the river at his estate, Belmont, in what is today's Fairmount Park.)

The covered highway across the river was embellished with two carved wood statues by William Rush, "Commerce" at one end, and "Agriculture" at the other. A marble obelisk at the western approach bore a long inscription recording the history of the bridge, and praising those "who by enterprising, arduous and persevering exertions achieved this extensively beneficial improvement." The bridge is said to have been the first covered bridge built in America.

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The legislation which made possible the construction of the Permanent Bridge also provided that after 25 years it might become a free bridge. Scharf & Westcott observe that, "On April 22, 1834, the Whigs had a celebration at Powelton, the [country] seat of John Hare Powel, on the west bank; and the party commit­tee bought from the [bridge] companies, for that day, the privilege of free passage over Market Street and upper ferry bridges to everybody." This incident, they continued, "set the people [of Philadelphia] to thinking of the advantages of free bridges ...."

The sentiment of making the Permanent Bridge a "Free Bridge" spread to the counties to the west, and in December of 1836 culminated in a convention of the citizens of Chester County held at West Chester on the 29th. An editorial writer in the Village Record of December 7, 1836 endorsed the Convention, and advo­cated freeing the Permanent Bridge of tolls:


We informed our readers last week of the proposed Convention, to be held at West Chester, on the 29th inst. for the purpose of taking measures for procuring the pass­age of a law making the Permanent Bridge a Free Bridge. Philadelphia has already appointed delegates, but the list is not in our possession. Upon it are the names of Nicholas Biddle, Jesse R. Burden, Joel B. Suthland, and others. The passage of the proposed law is worthy of an effort on the part of Chester county, as well as several other counties.

The Permanent Bridge at Philadelphia is a most weighty tax upon all of our citizens who frequent Philadelphia in their own conveyances. We have no idea of the sum Chester county pays annually to the bridge company; but in many instances the tax on individuals amounts to a very onerous rent: those who go to market once or twice a week must pay from 10 to 15, 20 and 30 dollars a year. It is a diminution of their profits to the amount of their toil.

The charter of the Permanent Bridge Company authorizes the Legislature, after the lapse of a certain number of years from the period of its incorporation, to purchase the stock.

The eastern counties of Pennsylvania have poured out their money like water, and borne the burthen of a heavy taxation, in proportion of the great improvements in which this state has been engaged. These improvements have doubled the value of property in the interior and western counties, while they have enhanced the value of property in the eastern counties very little if any. Would it not be equitable for the Legislature to pass a law which would contribute to the east a small proportion of the general advantage? The west ought not to deny this slight boon to the east.

We call attention to the meeting to be held on Saturday next, in this borough, to appoint delegates to the Convention. Let the FARMERS take hold of the matter.

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The Legislature passed the act of March 16, 1839 "to authorize the construction of free bridges over the Schuylkill at or near Philadelphia." The threat of construction of a free bridge led the bridge company into negotiations with Philadelphia county commissioners for its sale. The city thus became the owner of the bridge in 1840, and the tolls were abolished.

Nine years later it was reconstructed to accommodate the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which were placed on the north side, and the south side was afterward occupied by the tracks of the West Philadelphia City Passenger Railway. The bridge remained in constant use until the evening of November 20, 1875 when it was totally destroyed by fire. (However, in less than thirty-four days afterward, railway cars and freight trains were running across a substantial new bridge thrown up by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company.)

As bridge building accelerated in the early 1800s, design improvements were introduced by the builders. Theodore Burr developed an arch-supported truss carrying a level roadway, known as the "Burr Truss". Burr received a patent for his design in 1804. This type of construction was used in a high percentage of the covered bridges built in eastern Pennsylvania.

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Theodore Burr was born in Torrington, Connecticut in 1771. He got his start in bridge building in New England and New York, and later in his career he was involved in construction of many covered bridges in Pennsylvania. In 1812 he began work on what became five major contracts for bridges over the Susquehanna River which drained his energy and finances. He completed the projects, but died at Middletown, Pennsylvania in 1822. A writer has capsulized Theodore Burr's life in the sentence, "He was a great and prolific bridge builder but an impractical businessman." His name is kept alive today by The Theodore Burr Covered Bridge Society of Pennsylvania, Inc., organized May 3, 1959 for the purpose of promoting interest in the preservation of Pennsylvania's covered bridges.

In the fifty or sixty years following the opening of the Permanent Bridge in Philadelphia, literally thousands of bridges were built in Pennsylvania. Sir Henry Bessemer developed the process for making steel in 1855 which bears his name . Following the Civil War, this led to use of steel in bridge construction, or a combination of steel and wood, and the building of covered bridges went into decline. According to James, Worth's Bridge, built in 1899 over the West Branch of the Brandywine Creek, "apparently ... was the last covered bridge which was built in Chester County," although some covered bridges destroyed by flood or fire were later replaced in kind.

Over the years the names of certain bridges changed with changing ownership of adjacent properties. Sometime early in the twentieth century the County engineer gave an identifying number to each county bridge, no matter what construction type, in an attempt to solve the problem of changing names. A total of 221 numbers were assigned at that time, although new locations had increased the number to 300 by 1925.

As heavy traffic, flood, and fire took their toll, the number of covered bridges in the county declined to the present fifteen. We are fortunate to have two of the surviving covered bridges on the borders of our local townships. The Bartram covered bridge spans Crum Creek on Goshen Road at the county line about 8/10­mile from the point where Easttown, Willistown and Newtown Townships meet. Seven miles to the north, in Tredyffrin Township, Knox covered bridge carries Yellow Springs Road across East Valley Creek about 200 feet south of the Upper Merion Township border.

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Bartram's bridge was named for Israel and Mary Ann Bartram, who lived on the Chester County side of the ford at which the bridge was built in 1860. In the County engineer's report describing work done on county bridges during the period February 1, 1920 to November 17, 1927, Harry K. Ellis included the following paragraph:

"No. 159. Bartram's over Crum Creek. First inspected 4-12-21. Roof in poor condition. Water lay on floor. Several plank rotten. Has been inspected 9 times. Plank (sic) have been frequently repaired, new roof provided, one floor beam broke in 1924 and was replaced, copings have been repaired, weeds cut and inside whitewashed. Is now in good condition."

This covered bridge was closed to traffic in 1941 when the Commissioners of Chester and Delaware Counties built a modern concrete bridge a few yards to the north. Although the covered bridge is no longer in use, the Marple Newtown Historical Society restored it in 1970. It is the last surviving covered bridge in or partly in Delaware County. Further repairs performed by the Society in 1983 were funded in part by the Supervisors of Willistown township.

The bridge was built by Ferdinand Wood, who was low bidder on the job, at $1133. It is 60 feet long with a 13-foot roadway. A unique feature is the portal sheathing which is reported to be done in a manner unlike that on any other known covered bridge.

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The derivation of the name for the Knox Covered Bridge is subject to differeing interpretations, as there were two men with that name involved at different times in the history of the adjacent properties. United States Senator Philander C. Knox purchased the 266-acre "Valley Forge Farm" opposite the bridge in August of 1903. Considering the tradition of naming bridges for near by land owners, James considers it likely the bridge was named for him. However, a program prepared by the Valley Forge Historical Society for the 1960 dedication of the restored bridge identifies it as the "General Knox Covered Bridge". Brigadier General Henry Knox had been headquartered at the adjoining farm during the encampment of Washington's troops at Valley Forge during 1777-1778.

A bridge built at the location in 1851 was destroyed by a flood in 1865. It was replaced the same year by a larger bridge 65 feet long with a 13-foot roadway, built by Robert Russell at a cost of $1179.

The report of Harry Ellis gives this information:

"No. 165. Knoxes over Valley Creek. First inspection 5-21-20. Siding loose, approaches low, abutment cracked, plastering and pointing needed. 7 inspections. Plank (sic) have been patched, masonry repaired and one joist strengthened."

In June of 1958 the bridge was damaged by fire, although saved by local fire companies. It was restored in 1960, only to be damaged again in 1967 by a

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trailer truck carrying corrugated steel roofing. Most recently, in 1996, the bridge was significantly upgraded in a lengthy project by PennDOT. It is one of four county covered bridges which are today part of the state highway system.

Life moved at a slower pace in the days of the covered bridges. In fact, the county bridges in this area were posted with signs at either entrance reading "$5.00 fine for driving faster than a walk." While driving at not faster than a walk, one had time to read the sale bills, and it seemed that the bridges provided a bulletin board for every farm and stock sale for miles around. The cross beams overhead were also used to display ads for such products of the time as "Hood's Sarsaparella" or "Wild Cherry Cough Syrup made from Wild Cherry". In Bartram's bridge can be seen the faint outline of a political slogan "Lincoln --Save Union and Congress." The wooden bridges were also fair game for anyone who had the time to carve their initials, names or dates. Often weary travelers sought shelter from storms in these bridges, and many romances were known to begin in their confines.

An interesting winter chore, when a snowstorm arrived in olden time, was known as "snowing the covered bridges". It was necessary to transport snow onto the bridge to provide a snow base for sled and sleigh runners. The snow first had to be shoveled onto the bed of a sled and then shoveled off again inside the bridge. And as it was worn down, more snow had to be taken into the bridge -- a detail of life one hundred years ago little thought about today!



Chester County Historical Society Library, newspaper clipping and other files. Faris, John T, "Old Roads Out Of Philadelphia." (Phildelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1917)

Fenstermacher, Ted, "Tracking Yesterday." (Bloomsburg, Pa.: Press-Enterprise, Inc., 1983)

Lindborg, Carl, McVeigh, Clara, et. al., "Historic Newtown Township." (New­town Square: Township of Newtown Tricentennial Commission, 1980)

James, Arthur E., "Covered Bridges of Chester County, Pennsylvania." (West Chester: The Chester County Historical Society, 1976)

Portals, quarterly publication of The Theodore Burr Covered Bridge Society of Pennsylvania, Inc., (Vol. 9, No. 1, April 1969)

Scharf, Thomas and Westcott, Thompson, "History of Philadelphia 1609 ­1884." (Philadelphia: L H. Everts & Co., 1884)

Shank, William H., P. E., "Historic Bridges of Pennsylvania," Revised Edition. (York: American Canal & Transportation Center, 1980)

Weigley, Russell F, "Philadelphia - A 300-Year History." (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982)

Tredyffrin Easttown History Club Quarterly. (Vol. 34, No. 4, October 1996)


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