Made of Steel: The Bridges of Pennsylvania and their dire state

Walking through the tunnel of trusses on the Donora-Webster Bridge- Photo taken by Jason D. Smith

The Donora-Webster Bridge ober the Monongahela River in Washington County, Pennsylvania.  Walking across the bridge during a bridgehunting tour in Pennslyvania, I was awed by the beauty of the structure as it stood at least 20 feet tall above the water. Its grey color matched the color of the landscape, which had a mixture of green vegetation, brown to light-colored houses, and a dark aqua color of the Monongahela River, as it meanders its way towards Pittsburgh to join the Allegheny River to form the Ohio River. This bridge had a unique design as all but one span consisted of a Parker through truss design. The lone span, which was also the center span, consisted of a Pennsylvania Petit design, with a span of almost 600 feet. And the portal bracings, the entrance to a through truss bridge, are different between the main span and the other four spans, but both were unique and worth looking at as a tourist. Sadly however, this bridge is slated for demolition within the next 3 years as structural concerns have prompted its closure. However, looking at the bridge more closely, one can assume that due to the fact that if a bridge could not carry vehicular traffic anymore that it would be at least converted to pedestrian and cyclar traffic, right?

Not in the eyes of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the state legislation, as both agencies have been taking proactive steps towards demolishing and replacing any bridges that are 70 years of age and older as well as those considered structurally deficient, meaning that they are unable to handle the increasing amount of traffic on a daily basis. In the past 10 years, about 60% of the bridges that were built of iron and/or steel and belong into the aforementioned categories have met the wrecking ball with many more yet to come. Most of them were built using a truss or cantilever truss design (a description of the two can be found in the link in the education section of the front page).  The hardest hit areas are in the western and northern sections of the state where these gems of American history are located in sparsely populated areas but are most prone to demolition. There 70% of the bridges have been lost since 2003. This includes not only simple span truss bridges with ornamental truss designs like the Kreitz Road Bridge in Crawford County and the Tunnelton Bridge in Indiana County (both in 2010), but also multiple span bridges such as the Ulster Bridge in Bradford County (2007) and the Shanley Road Bridge in Elk County (2004), and rarities, like the Foxburg Bridge in Clarion County (2008). And more are yet to come as the campaign to replace these rarities with sturdier structures will continue until every bridge has a new structure. Unfortunately, the structures that replace these unique bridges consist of mainly concrete bridges that are mudane and many times do not conform with the landscape provided by the communities they used to serve. And to add insult to injury, these multi-million dollar projects come at the cost of the common person’s billfold.

The Foxburg Bridge as the lone double-decker Warren truss bridge. Built in 1921, the railroad served the upper deck while the bottom deck functioned as a roadway. Demolished in 2008 to make room for the replacement bridge’s sidewalk. Photo courtesy of Nathan Holth and Historic Used with permission

This alarming trend has led to a pair of questions that have to this day not been answered: 1. What factors are leading to this rapid demise of these historic bridges  and 2. Are there measures that can be taken to halt this trend and preserve what is left to be preserved?

It is no secret that if one compares the US infrastructure to that of many countries in Europe (including Germany where the author is residing) that the quality of the infrastructure, in particular the bridges is far better in Europe than in America. In fact, recent reports by the American Society of Civil Engineers rated the American infrastructure as a grade D. The bridges were given a grade of a C, the second highest result behind waste treatment (with a C+). This means that despite improvements in the repairs and replacement of many structurally deficient bridges, there are still tens of thousands left to pay attention to. Of these, Pennsylvania leads the nation with as many as 6,000 structurally deficient bridges out of the 31,600 bridges that exist in the state, even though initiatives have been carried out by Governor Ed Rendell to invest as much as $500- 700 million annually in bridge projects.  Pennsylvania has one of the most rigorous bridge inspection programs in the country where each bridge is inspected biannually, with the structurally deficient ones being examined more often to monitor any further deterioration. Bridges considered structurally deficient are closed and are either repaired or replaced at the earliest possible convenience. Unfortunately, many of the bridges affected by this thorough inspection happen to be truss and cantilever bridges whose average lifespan on the roadways can range from 60 years to 120 years. Despite attempts by PennDOT to market these bridges to interested parties, these attempts have failed to bear fruit and subsequentially they are replaced. This is in part because of the lack of financial resources and interest in purchasing the bridges, although the last bridge purchased in Pennsylvania- a pony truss bridge- was eventually relocated to neighboring Delaware, a deal that was finalized in May of this year. This rapid decline in historic bridges leads to the next question of the possibility of leaving the historic bridge to stand while the new structure built right next to it serves regular traffic. While such practices can be seen in places like Iowa, Tenessee, Michigan, and Texas (just to name a few), laws in Pennsylvania dating back to 1966 literally forbid such practices and puts the liability of such property on those interested in purchasing them, resulting in the withdrawl in the party’s interest in buying the historic bridge. This contributed greatly to the demise of many bridges affected, such as the Shanley Road, Tunnelton, and Ulster Bridges, respectively.

Despite attempts of cooperating between both sides of the spectrum, the issue of the historic bridges has become a focus of debate as many have taken sides and pointed fingers at each other. Those wanting to see the rest of the historic bridges saved have accused PennDOT of having poor preservation policies and historic bridge marketing practices, ranking it as the worst in the country. On the other side of the spectrum, legislators and PennDOT officials have attacked the historic bridge mitigation policies in connection with Section 106 of the Historic Preservation Act and the mandated environmental impact surveys claiming that they are delaying the replacement process. One Pennsylvania Senator, Barry Stout even went as far as retorting the historic bridge preservationists and stated that historic bridges are not meant for museum displays, while at the same time, claimed that the delays in replacing the bridges because of the Section 106 process is costing money and time and opposes such procedures. This was in response to two bridges that are slated for replacement in the next year, the Donora-Webster and the Chareloi-Monessen Bridges.

If there are dark sides to historic bridge preservation policies in Pennsylvania, there is almost a guarantee that there is a ray of light that might not only steer the course that has been taken by PennDOT and other agencies, but also bring the sides together to collaborate on this topic and save what is left of the historic bridges in Pennsylvania. Already, many large cities in the state have taken vast efforts to preserve and maintain their historic bridges not only to be used for recreational purposes but also for vehicular traffic. For instance, the 1860 Walnut Street Bridge in Northhampton County, the oldest surviving cast iron through truss bridge in the country, was reincorporated into a bike trail after years of rehabilitation and now serves as a link to Lehigh University. The Walnut Street Bridge over the Sushquehanna River in Harrisburg (the state’s capital) was convertedto pedestrian traffic and was even rebuilt after flooding took out the eastern spans in 2006. Many of Pittsburgh’s bridges have been refurbished and are now serving traffic again. This includes the Hot Metal Bridge over the Monogahela River, which used to be a a pair of railroad bridges before being converted into a roadway bridge for one span and a bike trail bridge for the span next to it.

Hot Metal Bridge in Pittsburgh- Photo taken by Jason D. Smith

The latest attempt at trying to preserve a historic bridge is converting it into a park. This is actually being done with the Quaker Bridge in Mercer County. Spearheaded by Nathan Clark, the 1898 bridge was bypassed by a new bridge in 2006. Despite some legal entanglements, Clark hopes to have sole possession of the bridge in which it will be converted to a park, providing the tourists with a splendid view of the Little Shenango River and a chance to do some picnicking on the Pratt through truss bridge. This bridge, together with the Meadville Bridge were the centerpieces of the Historic Bridge Conference, which took place this past August (for more information on the Meadville Bridge, please refer to the 11 October entry).

Nathan Clark talking about the Quaker Bridge to the pontists- photo taken by Jason D. Smith

Despite these steps that are being taken, it is not enough to stem the number of historic bridges that are being replaced with many more yet to follow in the next five years. Part of the problem with bridges that are 70 years and older is that there is not enough money and resources to maintain them, thus many of the structures are left to decay. The bridge types that are hardest hit are the metal truss and cantilever bridges and those built using steel and/or iron, as the wear and tear, combined with the weather extremities and the usage of salt and other materials have led to the rust and corrosion of the truss parts to a point of beyond repair, thus resulting in the need to replace the bridges. This applies to all crossings including the Greensburg Pike Bridge near Pittsburgh, where rust and corrosion on the superstructure has prompted a request to replace the multiple-span through truss bridge.

But it is not that the people in Pennsylvania want to see the historic bridges disappear. While many feel that the bridge needs to be safe- especially in light of the bridge disaster in Minneapolis, Minnesota on 2 August, 2007- but many feel that maintaining the structures would not only make them safe but prolong their lives further. A survey conducted by the author for the Historic Bridge Conference in August reinforced this claim.  Comparing the attitudes between the Europeans and the Americans, studies show that 2/3 of the participants in both sides of the Atlantic Ocean were of the opinion that a bridge must be safe but it also has to be maintained properly in order to make it safe.  Various sources have claimed that maintaining and rehabilitating historic bridges are more cost-effective than replacing them outright. However, many of the historic bridges today are no longer able to carry large amounts of traffic in terms of numbers and size and this has created a paralysis between maintaining what is there and replacing those that are deemed unsafe period. This is especially noticeable in Pennsylvania during a bridgehunting tour in August, as many bridges are decaying because of the lack of maintenance. With that plus the problem with the infrastructure itself because of many roads that are an average of 30 years old and are in dire need of a makeover, and dealing with the future of the historic bridges, the state is at risk of becoming not only a third world country, but also a battleground between those wanting to see the historic bridges replaced at any cost because of their structural obsoleteness and those who want to see at least some of the bridges preserved as a piece of American culture and history. And with this battle, we will see many more historic bridges fall prey to neglect and eventually the wrecking ball. When this happens, many people will shake their heads and wonder why this happened when it did, while others will try and salvage pieces of American history to show to others, as one can see in the photo below.

A souvenir to take home for show and tell- Photo by James Baughn; used with permission

To close, here is the answer to the riddle from last week: The sagging of one of the spans on the Venengo Veterans Memorial Bridge was clearly the result of a bent endpost and a roller which no longer functioned. A roller serves as an expension and contraction device on truss bridges and are ideal in extreme weather conditions. Because the roller no longer worked because of too much debris that could have been cleaned out, the only way the truss structure was able to contract and expand was through the superstructure itself.

Some helpful links:

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Bridge Information Online:

Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission Online:

Historic Charloi-Monessen Bridge Online:

You can also find other bridges in this website with some info and commentaries by its author, Nathan Holth.

The author would like to thank Nathan Holth, Todd Wilson, and James Baughn for their help in the article, including the permission to use the photos.

Wagon Wheel Bridge in Boone, Iowa


When looking at the picture above, one may see this as a simple single span Pennsylvania Petit through truss bridge spanning a large stream that was built at the turn of the century. However, if you look at the next three pics, you will find that there is more to this bridge than its appearance. Have a look below:


This bridge consists of a total of eight spans: four trestle spans on the east side, the Pennsylvania Petit truss design that is 200 feet (61 meters) long, and three Pratt through truss bridges with two center spans that are taller and 20-30 feet longer than the western most span. The total length of the bridge is 703 feet (214.3 meters), making it one of the longest combination spans to not only cross the Des Moines River but also one of the longest bridges of its kind in the state of Iowa. The history of the bridge is unique as it was built by one of the main local bridge companies in Iowa, the Iowa Bridge Company of Des Moines, Iowa. The company was founded in 1902 by James Carpenter and together with its rival company the Clinton Bridge and Iron Works Company, they became the primary bridge builders in Iowa and the surrounding area for the first three decades of the 20th century. While it is unknown how long this company was in existence, the Iowa Bridge Company was responsible for the construction of this bridge in 1910, although according to local records, the company constructed another larger bridge down stream to serve the Lincoln Highway (US Hwy. 30, now a county road). While that bridge was replaced twice and now a concrete bridge serves that road, the Wagon Wheel Bridge still provides travellers going down 200th Street with a scenic backroad route exiting Boone from the northwest and snaking its way down the Des Moines River Valley. When crossing the bridge, one can see the Kate Shelley Viaduct on the left hand side (both the 2009 modern concrete and the 1912 steel viaducts) and a lot of greenery and hills on the right hand side.

Sadly however, this bridge has been the focus of an intense debate on its future, as it has been closed to traffic since 2007 and has sustained structural damage to the east approach as a result of the Great Flood of 2008. While the bridge has been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, its future is being threatened through a referendum that states that Boone County residents would pay $22 per $55,000 worth of owned property to replace the bridge completely with a new structure built 60 feet away. This has been met by stiff opposition by some members of the Boone County board of commission and many residents who cannot afford to have their property taxes raised for this bridge project. Furthermore, should the majority vote for the project on 2 November, it cannot be started until a series of surveys are carried out to determine the environmental impact of the bridge project. It also has to go through the Section 106 of the Historic Preservation Act, which was put into law in 1966, to determine the adverse effects of altering or demolishing a bridge protected through its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. These surveys could take 3-5 years to complete and cannot be circumvented.

Contrary to the belief that the bridge would fall into the river as the county board of commissioners have claimed, upon visiting the bridge this past summer, from what I could see with the structure, the truss superstructure appeared to be in decent shape with the exception of some minor repairs done to it. The only recommendations that would have to be made would be to reconstruct the trestle approaches, as two of the spans have been misaligned as the result of the flooding. Furthermore new flooring may be needed in order for it to be a functioning unit again- be it for vehicles or for recreation, the latter of which is being pursued by many people.

Looking at the Wagon Wheel Bridge from a strategic and economical standpoint, going ahead with the referendum to demolish the bridge for a new structure that may serve up to 20 vehicles a day- given the current circumstances with the economy- is not in the best interest for the people of Boone County. Many residents are struggling to keep afloat due to high debts and unemployment, something that will continue to linger for many months and possibly years to come. Furthermore, the nearest crossing is only 3 miles to the south on the former Lincoln Highway, where travelers have been used to taking this route since the bridge’s closure in 2007. In addition, as one resident pointed out, the Wagon Wheel Bridge would make a better fit for recreation purposes, given its approximate location to the Kate Shelley Viaducts and due to the fact that there are not enough bike trails in and around the Boone area. Having a bike trail cross this truss bridge complex would provide tourists with access to not only the beautiful green Des Moines River valley but also to the past as they would learn about how this bridge was constructed and how it played a role in shaping the American infrastructure during that particular time.

To conclude this article, I would like to present you with this photo of the Wagon Wheel Bridge, up close and personal and have you ask yourself, is it really worth the price to replace this bridge, which would represent a bigger tourist attraction if rehabilitated to serve its purpose for recreation, for a bridge that will only accomodate up to only 20 cars a day, at the expense of the tax payers and another piece of American History, just because of the fear that the bridge might fall into the river, something that is more a theoretical than practical?

More photos of the Wagon Wheel Bridge can be seen in the website. Click here for more detailed shots taken by the author (mostly) and three others who have visited the bridge since 2009.

bhc new logo jpeg


Venango Veterans Memorial Bridge in Pennsylvania

Photo taken by Jason D. Smith

The next bridge on the tour is the Venengo Veterans Memorial Bridge, located just in the outskirts of a small village of Venango, which is between Saegertown and Cambridge Springs in the northwestern part of the state. Built in 1893 by the Wrought Iron Bridge Company in Canton in neighboring Ohio, the 2-span Pratt through truss bridge was closed to traffic in 2002 and if it has not happened yet, it is scheduled to be removed this year.

Why?  Take a look at the following pics here and guess what is happening to the bridge. Your guesses can be posted in the comment section or on the facebook page and the answer in the next posting will surprise you.

Mead Avenue Bridge in Meadville, Pennsylvania (USA)

Mead Avenue Bridge in Meadville, Pennsylvania (USA)
Photo taken by Jason D. Smith


My first entry of the Chronicles takes me to northwestern Pennsylvania and this remote location in the corner of Meadville, located along Mead Avenue over French Creek. If one takes a look at the bridge on the outside, the first impression of the structure is that it is one of a kind that you will never see elsewhere. The bridge is actually two bridges built into one. The inner portion of the bridge was constructed by the Penn Bridge Works Company of New Brighton in 1871 and consists of two spans of a Whipple design (see figure 1) all built using wrought iron. Its end posts are vertical and consist of balustrades on each end and have Phoenix columns, meaning they are shaped in a somewhat octagonal shape. The portal bracings- the entrance into the bridge- are unique as they presented a series of geometrical shapes in the form of circles and stars that stretch out to the middle. While they are still intact for the sidewalk portion of the bridge which is even more fascinating, only a section of the original portal bracing remains after years of abuse by tall vehicles trying to cross it and/or vandals who wanted a piece of the bridge and disregard its value.  The Whipple truss was encased with an additional truss in 1912, consisting of a Baltimore petit truss design built by Rodgers Brothers Company in Albion.  The bridge served traffic until inspection reports revealed some structural damage resulting in its closure in March, 2007. The structure has been sitting idle ever since then, with its future in doubt. However, given its unique structural design and its history, there is an underlying story behind this bridge which starts right here:

When driving to the bridge for the first time, the first impression I had was its desolate location. It was located along Mead Avenue, which was supposed to be the main artery going through the business district of the city. But it was very ironic given the fact that there were only a couple businesses and if there were some when it was open, they opted to move elsewhere when bridge was closed. To me, it was not necessary to replace the bridge, as a neighboring bridge, the Mercer Street Bridge was located not more than a quarter of a mile from this spot, if even that. Furthermore, there was an adjacent park with a refurbished log cabin which together with the bridge would make an excellent historic district for people to learn a bit of history of the city, which to my knowledge is home to one person, actress Sharon Stone, a figure I’ll get to shortly.

But crossing the structure for the first time, I could see the neglect that scars the bridge. It has nothing to do with the rust on the truss parts, the railings that were dented or ripped off, and parts of the sidewalk were removed. It has more to do with its lack of identity to the city and its inhabitants. The bridge has been a focus of countless debates on its future as despite attempts by preservationists and other parties interested in saving the bridge or at least part of it, the community would like to see the bridge go at any cost. It is a hindrance to the progress to the city and the closure is hurting businesses already hit by the economic crisis, they claim. The desperation of the community is getting stronger by the week. This is noticeable by the offer from a construction company in Pittsburgh to replace the bridge in 4 months at a cost of just $1.5 million! And this brings me back to Sharon Stone.

We all know Sharon Stone from the films Basic Instinct 1 & 2, where the Meadville native played the author Catherine Tramell,  who seduces first a police officer and later a psychologist to bed and sends their lives into Dante’s Inferno, both literally and professionally.  But one must not forget the fact that these two characters belonged to a list of people whom the bisexual perpetrator lured them to her web through lies and deception, and eventually murder.  Now what does Sharon Stone have to do with this bridge? One answer and one answer only: desperation!

Looking at our culture, when something goes wrong and it affects our way of life, we try desperately to eliminate the factors interfering with our way of life as quickly and cheaply as possible so that we continue on as is. It is a form of short-term thinking combined with opportunism that has been taking its toll on our society today. We do not take care of our precious belongings, so we replace them with something better without thinking long term. This applies especially to our bridges, which had been ignored until the I-35W Bridge disaster in Minneapolis in August 2007. Again, even though we address the issues on our deficient bridges, we still make the same mistake by building bridges as quickly as possible and as cheap as possible, but at the same time, not do what we should have been doing in the first place: maintaining them so that they last longer. It’s the basic instinct that we face. Whenever there is an opportunity to get rid of the old in place of the new at the quickest and cheapest possible way, we jump to it, realizing that this piece of old has historic value that we might want to keep at least part of it. We’re desperate for something new and that’s why we have this basic instinct of doing what we do.

This takes me back to the Mead Avenue Bridge and its disconnection with the people of Meadville. It is more than obvious that the community wants to get rid of the bridge. And it is sad too, as many communities with historic bridges have converted them to pedestrian traffic- including those in historic districts. The city of Lanesboro in Minnesota and its beloved Coffee Street Bridge-located right next to the business district- is a fine example of how the community came together to save the 1895 structure. This was done in 2002 and the nearest bridge open to vehicular traffic was just as far away as the distance between the Mead Avenue Bridge and the nearest crossing at Mercer Street. It is understandable that action will need to be taken, even though through better planning, the city’s business district would be better off even with the bridge closed or converted to pedestrian traffic. The problem is through the basic instinct of trying to revive the business district through replacing the bridge, they are destroying a piece of American history and with that another icon that would have once served this quiet town. Then it boils down to the question of what Meadville has to offer. It has no birthplace site nor a statue of Sharon Stone. It has a Sheetz convenience store, where I ate before heading off to visit another historic bridge. And it has PennDOT’s own version of the Garden of Eden- flowers and other artwork made from old road signs! Nice work, but my instinct says “You gotta do better than that!”

I wonder if Sharon Stone was to ever visit Meadville again if she would recognize it as before; let alone how she would react to the Mead Avenue Bridge’s demise- assuming she has memories of it…

The next bridge in the Chronicles is the Venango Veterans Memorial Bridge, also in Pennsylvania and with that some facts about Pennsylvania and its bridges that are worth reading about.

Note: Action is being carried out to salvage all or what is left of the Mead Avenue Bridge. After rejecting the proposal to reuse part of the bridge by the Meadville City Council, pontists are working together to find a new place for the bridge. A link on the proposals is enclosed below. Should you be interested in supporting the effort or if you want to purchase the bridge for recreational purposes, the contact details are enclosed after the link.

Link on the rescue attempts:

Contact details:

Historic Bridge Foundation:

Nathan Holth of Historic Bridges.Org:

Vern Mesler:

You can also contact the author of this work for any questions or suggestions regarding the bridge.

The address is:

Thank you for your help and let’s hope there is a new home for a rarity representing the richness of American history.

The diagram of the 1871 Whipple truss design

Information on the bridge can be found here via as well as by clicking here. More photos by the author are available via flickr, which you can access here.