Northeast Times

Span of the centuries

— Cows, wag­ons, ox­en and sheep, and oth­er good stuff, have graced what is be­lieved to be Amer­ica's old­est road­way bridge, in Holmes­burg.

The new plac­ard com­mem­or­ates the 300-year-old Pennypack Creek Bridge as the old­est road­way bridge in the United States.

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For about an hour on Sat­urday, the Pennypack Creek Bridge fi­nally got a long-de­served rest from the bustle of every­day life in North­east Phil­adelphia — a cof­fee break of sorts that was about 315 years in the mak­ing.

Po­lice erec­ted block­ades that morn­ing to de­tour traffic around the bridge so that hun­dreds of its neigh­bors could cel­eb­rate the ded­ic­a­tion of a Pennsylvania His­tor­ic­al mark­er there, al­though the Co­lo­ni­al-era wa­ter­way cross­ing may be as not­able today for its an­onym­ity as for its last­ing con­tri­bu­tions to our na­tion’s found­ing.

Built circa 1697 along an an­cient Nat­ive Amer­ic­an trail, the bridge is con­sidered Amer­ica’s old­est stone arch bridge and old­est road­way bridge of any kind in con­tinu­ous use.

At 73 feet long, the three-span struc­ture car­ried Co­lo­ni­al set­tlers and mer­chants, along with George Wash­ing­ton’s Con­tin­ent­al Army on its march to vic­tory at York­town. Now, it car­ries Frank­ford Av­en­ue across the Pennypack, in­ter­sect­ing Ash­burn­er Street to the north and Solly Av­en­ue to the south.

Today, the bridge is read­ily viewed in its rus­tic splendor from down in the creek val­ley, yet is prac­tic­ally in­vis­ible from the road sur­face above.

An es­tim­ated 500 people found their way there on Sat­urday, however. They marched across the span be­hind a bag­piper and a col­or guard in Re­volu­tion­ary War dress, be­fore gath­er­ing in the bu­col­ic park for a fest­iv­al of his­tory and nature ex­hib­i­tions.

• • •

“This is the old­est bridge in the New World,” boas­ted Fred Moore, chair­man of the or­gan­iz­ing com­mit­tee for the oc­ca­sion. “Sev­en­teen thou­sand cars a day cross this bridge. It’s amaz­ing it’s still stand­ing. And it’s still stand­ing be­cause of the way it was built; it was built out of Holmes­burg gran­ite.”

As a long­time Holmes­burg res­id­ent and former pres­id­ent of the loc­al civic as­so­ci­ation, Moore ex­udes a pas­sion for the bridge and what it rep­res­ents about his com­munity. Yet, oth­er folks had no ink­ling what all the fuss is about.

“It’s not a bridge to me. A bridge is like the Walt Whit­man or the Ta­cony-Palmyra. [This] is just like a street go­ing up Frank­ford Av­en­ue,” said An­nemarie Ariosto, 21, who sat out­side a nearby auto re­pair shop on Fri­day with­in yards of the newly in­stalled his­tor­ic­al mark­er.

Helen Saavedra, 20, who works in the re­pair shop every day, didn’t know any­thing about the bridge, either. “Not un­til they came and told us the street was clos­ing,” she said. “They said it was [from] 1867 or something like that.”

Call it a gen­er­a­tion gap, but to his­tory buffs, the old bridge is a liv­ing, breath­ing rel­ic.

“This is so much older than any­thing. And it’s still be­ing used for the same pur­pose it was ori­gin­ally in­ten­ded,” Moore said. “This isn’t a mu­seum. It’s a func­tion­ing bridge.”

• • •

Ac­cord­ing to Wil­li­am Lewis, who sits on the Pennsylvania Mu­seum and His­tor­ic­al Com­mis­sion, there are more than 2,000 his­tor­ic­al mark­ers scattered throughout the com­mon­wealth, but very few of the sites can match the Pennypack Creek Bridge for age and en­dur­ance.

It pre-dates Christ Church (1727), El­freth’s Al­ley (1728), In­de­pend­ence Hall (1732), Fort Miff­lin (1771) and the First Bank of the United States (1795). Pennsylvania’s ori­gin­al gov­ernor, Wil­li­am Penn, com­mis­sioned the bridge, which he crossed while trav­el­ing between his Bucks County man­or home and Phil­adelphia.

“The old­est things they mark in the state are Nat­ive Amer­ic­an sites and some of the things re­lated to the Swedish and Dutch [set­tlers],” Lewis said.

“Ob­vi­ously, this was a sig­ni­fic­ant spot be­cause Penn per­son­ally dir­ec­ted the build­ing of it. To have something tied dir­ectly to the founder of the state is amaz­ing.”

Re­search­ers be­lieve that Nat­ive Amer­ic­ans used the bridge site to cross the creek for thou­sands of years. The Nat­ive trail ran loosely par­al­lel with the Delaware River, roughly one mile in­land, and fol­lowed the con­tin­ent­al fall line — a geo­lo­gic­al fea­ture mark­ing the trans­ition from the coastal plain to the hilly Pied­mont re­gion.

This line also marked the head of the Pen­nepack Creek’s tid­al wa­ters. There are no tides up­stream from the fall line.  

When Europeans built the King’s High­way, they simply fol­lowed the long-es­tab­lished Nat­ive trail, which also crossed the Ta­cony, Poquess­ing and Ne­sham­iny creeks be­fore ter­min­at­ing at the Delaware River falls near Trenton. No bridges from the 17th cen­tury re­main at the oth­er stream cross­ings.

“In a lot of cases, the creek was left open. Here, you see a deep de­pres­sion, so the need was there [for a bridge],” Lewis said.

Set­tlers from the area were ob­liged to con­trib­ute to the pub­lic works pro­ject, either fin­an­cially or in hands-on fash­ion, ac­cord­ing to Torben Jenk, a vo­lun­teer his­tor­i­an who lec­tured at Sat­urday’s ded­ic­a­tion. Re­search­ers don’t have clear re­cords on how many men took part.

The bridge sup­por­ted the many loc­al mills and al­lowed mer­chants to trans­port their goods to mar­ket. It also al­lowed them to travel for re­li­gious ser­vices.

“All the wealthy early landown­ers, they had the in­terest in mak­ing this hap­pen,” Jenk said. “There were mills, mar­kets and meet­ings. All roads con­nec­ted those three things.”

Some slaves may have helped the con­struc­tion, but loc­al landown­ers gen­er­ally were not pro­lif­ic slave­hold­ers.

“Some of the landown­ers here had slaves. Some had free blacks work­ing for them. Some al­lowed them to pur­chase their free­dom,” Jenk said.

• • •

By 1781, the col­on­ists had some oth­er im­port­ant busi­ness to ad­dress — a re­volu­tion. That sum­mer, a com­bined force of 10,000 Amer­ic­an and French sol­diers un­der the com­mands of Gen. George Wash­ing­ton and his ally Gen. Jean-Bap­tiste de Rocham­beau began a 680-mile march from New­port, R.I., to York­town, Va., where they would over­whelm the Brit­ish un­der Gen. Corn­wal­lis.

In early Septem­ber, the troops reached present-day North­east Philly, first camp­ing near the Poquess­ing Creek, then trudging south­ward along the old King’s High­way in­to the city. Al­though the place name Holmes­burg wouldn’t be ad­op­ted un­til more than a cen­tury later, a sol­dier’s di­ary from the time men­tions the passing of the Holme Tav­ern, Moore said.

At the time, the pop­u­la­tion of the area was about 500.

“Ten thou­sand people and cows and wag­ons and ox­en and sheep — they all had to cross that bridge,” Moore said. “It was amaz­ing, but it brought the troops to York­town and to vic­tory.”

“[The march] was one of the in­cred­ible feats of the Amer­ic­an Re­volu­tion,” said Lanny Pat­ten, pres­id­ent of the Pennsylvania sec­tion of the Wash­ing­ton-Rocham­beau Re­volu­tion­ary Route non-profit group.

• • •

The bridge en­dures sim­il­ar wear-and-tear today, with a lit­any of cars, trash trucks, Route 66 trol­leys and tract­or-trail­ers pound­ing its as­phalt sur­face. The bridge was widened in 1893 to ac­com­mod­ate street­cars and high volume. The ori­gin­al façade can be seen from the up­stream side, while the new­er stones and arches are on the down­stream side.

Moth­er Nature has also taken her shots at the bridge with storms and ra­ging flood­wa­ters. But even she has failed to des­troy it. Jenk noted that the pil­ings sit atop a found­a­tion of bed­rock, an­oth­er test­a­ment to the wise site se­lec­tion.

Many pass­ersby think of the site mainly for its well-doc­u­mented nuis­ances. Home­less people tend to use a nearby park pa­vil­ion for long-term shel­ter. That area of the park also has a repu­ta­tion as a gath­er­ing place for drug ab­users, teen drink­ing parties and rowdy night­time rev­elry.

“The freaks come out at night. That’s when all the evil is, at night,” said Tony, 61, a street mu­si­cian who spends many days at the bridge strum­ming on a gui­tar and rap­ping in­to a non-amp­li­fied mi­cro­phone.

He asked that his last name not be pub­lished.

“I told them I want a job keep­ing the park clean. You got to keep it clean every day be­cause a lot of kids come out here,” he said.

The bridge’s ad­voc­ates hope to or­gan­ize a per­man­ent com­mit­tee and fund to care for the site and pro­mote com­munity pro­gram­ming there.

“This is something in our own back­yard that has na­tion­al sig­ni­fic­ance,” said Linde Lauff, pres­id­ent of the Friends of Pennypack Park. “If we don’t pass on the his­tory that’s here, it will be lost.” ••

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You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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