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.
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.
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“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.”
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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.
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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.
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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.” ••