A metal plaque hangs from the wrought-iron trusses over Bishop Bridge in Upper Allen Township, proclaiming it to be the 1898 handiwork of “Wrought Iron Bridge Co. Builders, Canton, OH.”
For nearby resident David Miller, the bridge — created by one of the 28 late 19th century bridge-building firms which were eventually consolidated into the American Bridge Co. — is part of the history that helps create the charming character of his rural neighborhood near Messiah College among the folds of the Yellow Breeches Creek.
“If you walk through this area, you can get a really good feel for what this must have been like in the 1800s,” thanks to the bridge and still-standing old farmhouses and mills, Miller said. “It’s one of the few places where you can, without too much imagination, say ‘Wow, this is what this looked like (100 years ago).’”
There once was a companion wrought-iron bridge about one-half mile to the west, but Gilbert Bridge was replaced in 2008 with a modernized concrete bridge. Bishop Bridge now is closed temporarily due to structural deficiencies, and Kirk Stoner. Cumberland County’s director of planning, said it also might be slated for replacement in a future county bridge improvement plan.
Miller thinks that may be a bridge too far. He doesn’t want his neighborhood to lose Bishop Bridge, and Stoner said residents are often divided between concern over the cost of maintaining a functionally obsolete bridge and support for preserving history.
When Cumberland County decided a replacement was needed for Craighead Bridge — an 1899 construction that carries Zion Road over the Yellow Breeches Creek in South Middleton Township — residents attended several early 2013 township meetings to advocate for and against the township purchasing the bridge from the county and preserving it. The township’s supervisors ultimately decided against purchasing the bridge, and it is scheduled for demolition as part of the county’s six-year bridge improvement plan.
There were 863 total metal truss bridges recorded in Pennsylvania in a 2001 PennDOT survey, but more than 260 of those bridges have been destroyed, according to information provided by PennDOT.
It’s a situation that upsets historic bridge enthusiast Nathan Holth, who created the website historicbridges.com to advocate for the maintenance of historic bridges nationwide.
Holth began his work on preserving historical bridges in Michigan — admiring their “complex beauty” and even the imperfections that appear on bridges created before computer-aided design — but said he later fell in love with Pennsylvania’s bridges.
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“They were older, they were larger, they hadn’t been altered over the years — they looked the way they were the day they were built. I was just really captivated by the bridges in Pennsylvania, and shocked that they weren’t being maintained,” he said. “To me, it’s Pennsylvania’s heritage more than any other state in the country.”
Holth’s website lists 17 examples of historic metal, stone and concrete bridges in Cumberland County and 12 in Perry County, most of which are at least 75 years old. PennDOT spokesman Greg Penny said many of Cumberland County’s historic metal truss bridges are concentrated along the Yellow Breeches Creek.
Holth said there are advocates for wooden covered bridges in Pennsylvania, but nobody seems to be standing up for the metal truss bridges — although there are some efforts underway to preserve them. He acknowledged PennDOT has a historical bridge management program, including a marketing program to encourage municipal governments and private organizations to purchase historical bridges scheduled for replacement. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission must also review any alterations planned for historic bridges.
While acknowledging the value of preserving history, Stoner and Penny said there are cost concerns which make historic bridge preservation challenging. It’s particularly difficult to justify using single-lane 17th and 18th-century bridges to serve 21st century traffic needs, Stoner said.
“Our bridge program is forward-looking in trying to set up infrastructure for the next 100 years,” he said. “Looking forward 100 years, do you really want to restrict yourself to a single lane?”
Many historic bridges, though, are on low-volume roads, and Holth said he does not believe there are traffic needs that require all of them to be expanded to two lanes or be bolstered to remove weight restrictions. More generally, many of the bridges may not need replacement if they are better maintained in the first place, he said.
Miller said he isn’t advocating the county pay for an overhaul of Bishop Bridge that would permanently enable vehicular traffic. However, he said he would like the county to maintain the structure as a pedestrian and bicycling bridge, which would require a lower maintenance cost.
Stoner said the county would still be liable for any problems that would occur at a non-functioning bridge it owned. Such bridges, he said, also would not be eligible for state or federal funding, so any maintenance costs would have to be subsidized by the county’s general fund.
He said he county encourages local community groups with available funding to purchase and maintain non-functioning historic bridges, but that it can’t justify using taxpayer money for that purpose.