Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Lost Bridge of the Week-- January 4th

Newkirk Viaduct

Crossing the Schuylkill at Grays Ferry Avenue

No one ever covers bridges anymore.
                        This thing was crazy... a covered multi-modal bridge 800 feet long from 1838. They called it the Newkirk Viaduct, but most people just called it what the span in the same spot is called today: the Grays Ferry Bridge. In the mid 19th century, if you wanted to travel to all points south of Philly, you had to do it over this motherfucker.
                       It began in 1831. At that time, there was no way to take a train between Philadelphia and anywhere west of the Schuykill and it was becoming a problem. The Philadelphia and Delaware Railroad Company formed in that year with the intention of building a route straight down to the Delaware state line. They got some badass engineers on the case, Samuel Kneass and William Strickland. By the time 1835 rolled around, the line was surveyed and plotted. They wanted the train to cross the mighty Schuylkill at Rope Ferry (which was exactly what it sounds like), currently called Penrose Avenue.
                      Even though the company was chartered in 1831, they didn't have a president until 1836, and that was Matthew Newkirk. This guy was a badass all around town and was pissed off at how much this thing was going to cost and where it was plotted. He suggested that it cross the river at Gray's Ferry and had Kneass re-plan the line accordingly. Then he appealed for a bigger budget to get this fucker done already. The result was the re-naming of the crew to the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad Company.  
                     PWB bought the shitbag floating pontoon bridge that people called the Gray's Ferry Bridge at the time and destroyed the fuck out of it on December 31st, 1836. Then they got Kneass and Strickland to design an 800-foot-long covered bridge with two roads: one for carriages and one for trains. Construction began in July of 1837 and opened on Christmas, 1838. 
                     Newkirk was so fucking proud that not only did he give the bridge his name, he built a 30 foot tall monument to himself in marble on the western end of the bridge. 

Drawing of it from 1856.
                       Even more fucking nuts than that is that its still standing at the old western terminus of the bridge, next to the current Septa tracks under the north side of the 49th Street bridge, 174 fucking years later.

As seen in 2009. Pic by Bruce Andersen.
                     The fun thing about the Newkirk Viaduct is that when bad shit occurred and it was destroyed, it was just rebuilt like nothing happened. Only 2 years after opening, it was carried away in a bad flood. The motherfucker was back in action shortly after. It burned the fuck down in 1863 only to be completely rebuilt almost immediately. The 67-foot draw section of the bridge was replaced numerous times, the first being only a year after the bridge opened.
                     After 62 years of rebuilds and alterations, the Newkirk Viaduct was finally put out of its misery in 1900. Rumor has it that some pieces of the approaches to the 1902 railroad bridge that is permanently sitting switched open on the river are remnants of the old Newkirk Viaduct. Who knows? Either way, this bridge was an important link that was the only way to get south of Philly on a train to get your ass blown off in the Civil War. That's something.


  1. GroJ:
    The viaduct monument was designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, who also designed Newkirk's own house at 13th & Arch Streets, and the Philadelphia Wilmington & Baltimore depot at 11th & Market Streets. There's a pic of the monument design on PAB
    According to Walter's account book at the Athenaeum the monument cost $1100 in 1839, $1030 of which was paid to marble contractor Findley Highlands for "marble work, lettering, hauling, & setting" This left the Architect with a whopping commission of $70.

  2. Thanks for the extra info. I talked about Newkirk's house in this article:

    Too bad the monument is sitting unseen and covered with graffiti. I wonder what it would take to move it to the western end of the current bridge.

  3. "PWB bought the shitbag floating pontoon bridge that people called the Gray's Ferry Bridge at the time and destroyed the fuck out of it" /// I love this great little philly architectural history blog. Puts a smile on my face every time.

  4. Inspired in part by the muscular prose in this post, I did some digging into some of the mysteries that still surround the Newkirk Viaduct Monument. Here's what I know, and don't know:

    1. Great article-- I'm glad I helped inspire it!