Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

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"Oblique view of four wrought iron arches with stone masonry piers." HAER

Strawberry Mansion Bridge
, 1896-97
Schuylkill River at Ford Drive and Strawberry Mansion Drive, Philadelphia PA

Jane Mork Gibson, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

Because it was originally a "trolley bridge," the history of the Strawberry Mansion Bridge is irrevocably tied to that of the Fairmount Park Transportation Company which for fifty years—November 10, 1896 to November 10, 1946—operated a street railway line that extended for 8.8 miles and ran wholly within the boundaries of Fairmount Park. 1 The trolley bridge over the Schuylkill River connected the East Park where one terminal was located at 33rd and Dauphin in the Strawberry Mansion District, to the West Park where the other terminal was at 44th and Parkside. There had long been sentiment for construction of a bridge over the Schuylkill between the Girard Avenue Bridge and Falls Bridge that would carry general traffic, and the Strawberry Mansion Bridge met this need by providing space for pedestrians and carriages as well as for the trolleys.
 
The promoter and director of the street railway project was Charles H. Porter, a Philadelphia Republican politician. A New Jersey Charter was issued to the corporation November 10, 1894 with the stipulation that the line be in operation within two years.  The Fairmount Park Commission granted a franchise, assessing a two percent levy on gross receipts which continued throughout the line's operation. Construction on the piers and abutments of the bridge started in July, 1896. There was a controversy over who would get the contract—the Phoenix Bridge Company or the Pencoyd Iron Works—both located on the Schuylkill River upstream, and both aware of the politics involved.
 
The bridge consists of "four wrought-iron arches on three stonemasonry piers with three Warren trusses supporting viaducts on east and west approaches…Russell Fair, Jr., engineer; Theodore Cooper, consulting engineer; Phoenix Bridge Co., builders."
2 Although the company was able to meet its commitment by officially opening on November 10, 1896, and running cars in the West Park until the end of that month, Strawberry Mansion Bridge was not completed until April 20, 1897, and it was opened to trolley traffic on June 13, 1897. It also had a 40 ft. carriageway and a 12 ft. pedestrian sidewalk. The bridge was not changed or altered in any way before the line was shut down in 1946.
 
The bridge itself was a source of much interest in traction circles at the time of its construction, it being one of the largest such projects undertaken in the United States up until that time. The bridge, still in use by highway traffic today, is 1237 feet long and 790 feet wide. Since it was built primarily for the use of the trolley company the trolley had a double-track private right of way along the south side of the bridge, separated by a railing from the remainder of the bridge which was for pedestrian and vehicular traffic. The carriageway is 40 feet wide.
 
The bridge consists of one lattice-girder span forty feet long and two lattice-girder spans seventy feet long which make up the approaches on the west bank. Four steel spans each 208 feet long span the river and the east-bank approaches use two lattice-girder spans each seventy feet long and one 85 feet long. The carriageway is paved with asphalt. The trestle for the trolley line was much more than substantial than usual because of the prevalence of open cars on the line and the consequent safety problems involved. The ties ran the full width of the roadway under both tracks and the area was planked with 26 inch yellow-pine planking between and on the sides of the tracks. A guard rail ran the full length of the bridge on the river side of the trolley roadway. This right of way is still there, unused.
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Looking north. HAER
 
The trolley line was a single track that operated in one direction, with parallel tracks for only a short distance. It carried passengers to parts of the park that were wooded and quite unaccessible at the time of the Centennial. The trolley had a summer route that consisted of two loops, and both stopped at Woodside Park, an amusement park built and operated by the trolley company about halfway around each loop. It was necessary to transfer to go from one terminal to the other in summer, but in winter there was only a single loop.
 
The line operated at a profit only so long as it was utilized by the public for access to recreation and entertainment, for it could rely on commuter traffic for only a small portion of its revenue. In 1917 the company was purchased by the Fairmount Park Transit Company at a receiver's sale, and the Fairmount Park Commission transferred the license, retaining the right to 2 percent of gross revenue. Business prospered in the early 1920s, peaking at 2,000,000 passengers a year, but then a decline began.
 
Strawberry Mansion Bridge by 1927 was showing signs that repairs should be undertaken. In his Annual Report for that year the Chief Engineer of Fairmount Park wrote,
 
The trolley bridge is continuing to deteriorate. The asphalt roadway which was laid on cinder concrete is wearing out and the floor plates are corroding. The whole structure below the road level needs painting and all laminated floor beams should be replaced. 4
 
By 1933 the situation was so bad the Park Commissioners demanded that repairs be made, but the company was unable to comply. In 1939, when its operating license expired, the company gave ownership of the bridge to Philadelphia in return for a ten-year renewal. The city then undertook repairs to the structure.
 
The public's love affair with the automobile, and the aging of the original rolling stock, which was then fifty years old, caused the company to file for permission to abandon in 1946, and the assets were sold at public auction November 6, 1946. On the previous September 10 the Route 85 bus had already taken over, carrying passengers from the Dauphin Station to the Parkside Station, but traveling over streets outside the park and crossing the river at City Line. The tracks on Strawberry Mansion Bridge were auctioned off along with the other trackage, and the bridge entered into its present-day status, carrying all types of traffic except trolleys.

1  See also Workshop of the World "Fairmount Park Transportation Company Power Station."
2  Richard Webster, Philadelphia Preserved, (Philadelphia, 1976), p. 240.
3  Harold E. Cox, The Fairmount Park Trolley, A Unique Philadelphia Experiment, (Printed by Harold E. Cox, 80 Virginia Terrace, Forty Fort, PA 19704, 1970), p. 11.
4  Fairmount Park Commission, "Annual Report of the Chief Engineer," (1927), p. 3.

 
Update May 2007 (by Jane Mork Gibson):
The Strawberry Mansion Bridge stopped being used for trolleys after 1946, yet it continued to be a link between East and West Fairmount Park, serving pedestrians, vehicles, horses, and bicycles. In 1996 the bridge was closed, being declared unsafe because of severe deterioration of the road deck, footways, steel arches, and deck truss spans. Owned by the City of Philadelphia and an important part of its history, the Streets Department undertook restoration of the bridge, including historic elements to recreate its original appearance. The work was done in phases, with the bridge opened to vehicular and pedestrian traffic in 1999. A pedestrian promenade, a new element, and other ornamental details were added later. The bridge was cleaned and repainted in its original dark olive green color. The public was invited to the official opening on June 29, 2001, when a celebration was held at the bridge and the ladies received colorful parasols and the men straw boater hats.

The Strawberry Mansion Bridge Restoration was nominated for and won the 2002 Preservation Achievement Award, given by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, cited as “an outstanding restoration and renovation of a historic public asset." Following is a description given in the nomination by Fairmount Park:

One of the project’s greatest achievements was the adaptive reuse of the old trolley lanes as a pedestrian promenade. This section of the bridge had not been used since the end of trolley service in 1946. The new promenade, which measures 27 feet by 800 feet, extends the length of the bridge.... Viewing wells in the deck allow pedestrians to view scullers in the river below as well as the intricate truss system located just below the deck. The promenade also features two new sections of trolley track along with reproduction and original trolley catenary poles. The track sections, along with interpretive signage, help visitors understand the history of the Strawberry Mansion Bridge and Fairmount Park.

See also:

Historic American Engineering Record - Strawberry Mansion Bridge, Ford Road & East River Drive

Historic American Engineering Record - Strawberry Mansion Bridge, Spanning Schuylkill River at Strawberry Drive