News presents briefs about current and forthcoming programs, events, exhibits and activities of historical and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted in parts with permission of the author. It originally appeared in Stepping Stones, September, 1974, published by the Warren County Historical Society.

The Warren Democratic Advocate reported on November 4, 1839: “Bridge over the Allegheny progressing fast. The pier and a­butments completed.” Then … trouble! On November 18, the same paper had this to say: “On Friday afternoon last, that part of the bridge (which is being erected across the Allegheny River), extending from the abutment on the North side of the river to the pier, gave way and fell into the water. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The loss is estimated at $2000.” And finally, on December 24, 1841, “The bridge was finished by this date and a road was opened from it to intersect the Warren Ridgway Turnpike, near the ferry.”

This was the shaky beginning for the covered bridge, with two spans and a pier in the middle, built at the foot of Hazel Street in Warren in 1839. After fifteen years of service, apparently without proper care, the poor old structure began an even more spectacular decline, and over a period of months during the winter of 1854-55, it collapsed, in pieces, into the river. In June of 1855, the editor of the Warren Mail morosely eulogized: “The remaining span of the old ‘Bridge of Sighs’ at this place, went down with a crash Thursday afternoon. The pier stands erect in the middle of the river, a monument of its departed glory, and a capital mark for young pilots to aim at … ” This parting shot followed several even more flowery descriptions of the bridge’s demise as it crumbled, bit by bit, through the winter and spring.

Since there was no way left to cross the river except by ferry (or on the ice, in winter), it wasn’t long before the townspeople began to grumble. Rumors of building a new bridge began to circulate, but little else happened. Another fifteen years passed before action came at last in the form of a corporation made up of some prominent Warren businessmen; the result of their deliberations was the Pleasant Bridge Company.

Schenck’s History of Warren County (1887) says, in the biography of Andrew Hertzel: “In the winter of 1870-71 they (Hertzel and others) … at once communicated with a number of eminent civil engineers and bridge builders throughout the country, particularly the Roeblings, and afterward with George W. Fischler (sic) of Elmira. In the same winter they organized a stock company under the name of Pleasant Bridge Company. Negotiations resulted in the hiring of Mr. Fischler, by the month, to build the bridge.”

This paragraph, recently rediscovered, and despite the misspelling of Mr. Fishler’s name, disproves what has long been a rumor; but as is the case with all rumors, there was some reason for supposing that this one was true. For many years it was assumed that the famous Roebling company, of Trenton, N.J., was the builder of Warren’s suspension bridge. And no wonder, for the Warren Mail mentions the visit in March, 1871, of a representative of the Roebling company who examined the town for the best site and suggested an estimate for construction of $26,450. In addition, the Mail reported in June, 1871, that the Pleasant Bridge Company would let contracts for the stone work and then buy the bridge itself “of Mr. Roebling, the great bridge builder in New Jersey, and employ him to put it up.”

Of course, this did not happen. But Warren did get a bridge, and a first-class example of the builder’s art. The most famous Roebling project, the Brooklyn Bridge, was begun in 1870; it was thirteen years in the building. It is easy to see why the Roebling company may have been reluctant, unable in fact, to take on another bridge at that time, especially Warren’s, which was actually under construction less than a year.

The tribulations accompanying the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge are by now well known. The whole story has been recorded again only recently in an excellent book by David McCullough, the Great Bridge. John A. Roebling, the immigrant German engineer who designed the bridge, died in 1869 following a freak accident during a survey of the bridge line. His son, Washington A. Roebling, carried on for his father, and though stricken in 1872 with a caisson disease, which paralyzed him for life, he saw the project through the long years of setbacks and disappointments. There are today, of course, many suspension bridges all over the world, some of them more spectacular than the Brooklyn Bridge; but few, if any, have been the result of such personal courage and devotion as that of the giant which still spans the East River in New York.

It is altogether possible that the wire rope used in the construction of Warren’s bridge was a product of the Roebling company. John Roebling had perfected a system for making cable of extraordinary strength, and this business was an integral part of his bridge-building operations. So although Roebling did not build Warren’s bridge, this was possibly one of the several connections his company had with the whole project. In 1894 and 1895, during the time the Pleasant Bridge Company negotiated to sell the bridge to Warren Borough and Pleasant Township, two inspections were conducted. Not only was it desirable to know the condition of the bridge, but the owners were anxious to have an estimate placed on its value. After considerable negotiation, the bridge was finally sold and it became toll-free.

One of the inspections during this time was made by Wilhelm Hildenbrand, an extremely capable engineer who had been Washington Roebling’s draftsman on the Brooklyn project. He designed the anchorage approaches for that structure, did all the finished drawings, and kept plans for construction in advance of all the work. Later, as an independent engineer end contractor, and as a consulting engineer for the Roebling company, he built Pike’s Peak tramway and became involved in several other suspension bridge-building projects. His report on the Warren bridge and letters to the company concerning his inspection are now in the possession of the Historical Society, as are copies of the newspaper report of both his inspection and that of Charles F. Stowell, a civil engineer. Both men found the bridge in good condition and foresaw continued long years of use.

Curiously enough, once again in 1913, when another inspection was called for, the Roebling company was hired for the job. Their representative, Walter Von Voigtlander, came to Warren in May of that year, made a detailed inspection in which he examined every part of the bridge and drew up a blueprint. His only reservation was the possibility of overloading during use; otherwise, he found the bridge in excellent condition.

It would appear that this inspection was the final connection with the Roeblings; so even though they did not build the bridge, the services of the company were put to good use in later years. And if, in fact, their cable was used on the Warren bridge, there is plenty of reason to believe that the cable would still be supporting it today.

The Warren Mail, September 19, 1894, listed reduced tolls for the suspension bridge: 4-horse vehicle, 25 cents; 2-horse vehicle, 12 cents; 1-horse vehicle, 8 cents; 1 horse, mule-saddled, 5 cents; ox, 3 cents; sheep, goats, 2 cents; persons, 2 cents – includes the bikes; round trip, 3 cents; half rate for funerals.

Most of the information of value comes from editor Ephraim Cowan’s “Home Matters” column in the Warren Mail of 1871 and 1872. As he did in many other cases, Cowan kept a running account of the progress of the construction, and we are indebted to him for his intense interest in many facets of life in Warren in the nineteenth century.

After the Pleasant Bridge Company had gotten itself organized and underway, during the winter and spring of 1871, the contracts were let for work to begin. The stone work for the abutments (which are still standing today just east of the present concrete bridge) was begun in June by Reed and Shaw of Williamsport, Pa. Work continued throughout the summer and fall months under Mr. Fisher, and the bridge was officially opened to the public on November 30. Winter weather apparently put an end to work for that year, and Mr. Fisher completed his portion of the job by the end of June, 1872, when he enclosed the towers and painted the whole structure. If Schenck’s figure for the construction cost is correct, the finished product cost the company nearly $45,000. Tolls were established and in effect for about twenty-five years.

Although the bridge appeared to lead to nothing (the south side was at that time undeveloped), it became the means of easy access to the cemetery and an impetus for eventual development on the south side of the river. The bridge served Warren for forty-seven years, until the new concrete bridge was completed in 1918.

A visible remnant of the suspension bridge survives today in the form of a three-foot-long, four by eight-inch timber presented in 1972 to the Historical Society by Mrs. Gilbert Buerkle. In 1919 and 1920, Walker’s plant on Union Street was enlarged and remodeled; timbers from the bridge, which had been purchased from the Gamble Construction Company, were used in this project. The display can be seen at Society headquarters with the bridge model built by Gregg Bertolini.

 

Sources

Schenck and Rann, History of Warren County; Syracuse, 1887.

Howden, Historical Atlas of Warren County; Washington, Pa., 1878.

Steinman, Harcourt, Builders of the Bridge; New York, 1945.

McCullough, Simon and Schuster, The Great Bridge; New York, 1972.

Warren Centennial 1795-1895, Warren, 1897. Warren, Pa. city directories.

The Warren Mail, 1871 and 1872.

Warren Mirror, February 11, 1918.

Stepping Stones, Volume 9, #1 and Volume 15, #3.

Warren County Historical Society archives, Small Collection #70 and Andrew Hertzel collection.

Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, New York.

Miss Ann Lesser, Warren Public Library.

H.C. Putnam.