Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Lost Bridge of the Week-- September 14th

The Schuylkill Permanent Bridge

Schuylkill River at Market Street

Market Street at the Schuylkill. It was a long fucking time ago.
                   So it's the late 18th Century and you're in Philadelphia. If you wanted to leave the city and go east or west, you would have to take an expensive-ass crowded ferry or otherwise cross a floating pontoon bridge. If it was raining or windy, you were fucked. The need for a sturdy bridge over either the Delaware or Schuylkill existed since Philadelphia's founding.
                  In the 1780's, Thomas Paine (yes, THAT Thomas Paine) designed a iron bridge that would span the Schuylkill River at High (Market) Street. Back then that was like designing a bridge to Bermuda. The design never came to fruition, mostly because nobody had any idea of how the fuck they would put it together.
                In 1797, Charles Wilson Peale (yes, THAT Charles Wilson Peale) designed a wooden bridge for the same spot and got a patent on how it would be constructed. On April 27, 1798, Governor Mifflin incorporated a group of private investors that would fund a stone bridge across the river.
                They called in engineering badass William Weston, Esquire from England to design a stone bridge and figure out how the fuck to build the supporting piers for it. Weston was an engineering badass and designed a special kind of coffer dam to get this thing going.
                 Construction began in 1800 with a budget of $200,000. As the piers were being built, the investors figured out that a stone bridge would be too expensive and they would need to build it out of wood. Benjamin Latrobe submitted a plan for the new bridge design but it must have sucked because there's barely any record of it.
                Then came legendary badass Timothy Palmer. This guy was a self-taught architect and bridge designer. He was like "Fuck Thomas Paine, fuck Charles Wilson Peale, fuck Latrobe too. I have a design for a wooden bridge that will span the Schuylkill and make every other bridge look like a bitch." He called it the Permanent Bridge, because it was designed to last 30 years.
                 Once the stone piers were complete, the wooden frame designed by Palmer was begun. Judge Richard Peters, president of the dudes funding the bridge, had a great idea. They could cover the bridge frame and roadway with more wood and protect it from the elements. Maybe the Permanent Bridge could survive for 40 years instead of 30! Palmer designed the cover with another architect, Owen Biddle. Sculptor William Rush decorated it with sculptures about commerce and agriculture and shit. Part of the bridge was painted with sand, stone, and plaster-infused paint so it would look like masonry.
Diagram showing the bridge frame and skin.
                     On January 1st, 1805, the 550-foot, way over-budget Schuylkill Permanent Bridge, the first covered bridge in America, opened. It instantly became a Philadelphia landmark. Tolls varied based on what you were driving across and how heavy it was. Rates ranged from 1 cent (for a single person walking) to $1.35 (for a six-ton load).
                 The bridge was a huge success, inspiring other wooden bridges to be built across the Schuylkill in Philadelphia and other cities along the river. Palmer went on to design a shitload of other covered bridges that dotted the nation. In 1850 to 51, the bridge was expanded to carry trains after most of it was destroyed by fire. Though it was built to last only 40 years, it managed to survive all the way from 1805 to November 20th, 1875, when it finally burned down.
                 An 1805 wooden bridge lasting 70 years? That's pretty fucking impressive. Though some consider the 1850 renovation an entirely new bridge, the piers that William Weston designed held it up. A plaque commemorating this bridge is on display at the current bridge at Market Street, which is officially called the Market Street Permanent Bridge. It's just one year younger than the 1805 one was when it was destroyed.

Look at that shit. Nice work.

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