Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

"Rendering of proposed Falls Bridge" (1894). HAER

Falls Bridge, 1894-1895
Schuylkill River at East Falls, Philadelphia PA  

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

The final natural fall line of the Schuylkill River as it flows to the Delaware River occurs at the Falls of the Schuylkill, or East Falls as it is now known. In 1821 the fall line was appropriated by the City of Philadelphia by the construction of a dam down river at Fairmount which created a slackwater pond as far as Flat Rock Dam in Manayunk. 1 The City purchased the water power rights from Josiah White and Joseph Gillingham in 1819 for $150,000. Today when water in the river is low, the rocks of the falls can still be seen under the twin bridges carrying the Roosevelt Expressway (U.S. Route 1) across the river.
There has been a variety of bridges constructed to span the Schuylkill at the Falls and they were destroyed by overloading, by the raging icy flood waters of the Schuylkill, or by fire. Reports indicate that the 1808-1809 Finley chain suspension bridge was damaged in 1810 when a drove of cattle crossing it caused some of the suspenders to break and part of the floor then fell into the river. The bridge was repaired, but broke again in 1816 after a very heavy snowfall. Faced with no bridge at the Falls to serve his factories there, Josiah White erected a wire suspension bridge in 1816 which was designed to allow workers to cross the river from their homes on the west bank to the factory on the east bank. The bridge was 408 feet long and was supported by six wires, all the iron work was supplied by White's wire and rolling mill at the Falls.
2 Although only for pedestrian use, this "spider bridge" is credited with being the earliest wire suspension bridge in the country. 3 A series of three wooden bridges followed, built in 1817, 1829, and 1849. The first one was a covered bridge that met a spectacular end when it was lifted off its piers and abutments and carried down river to Fairmount during the icy winter of 1822.

The Falls Bridge that is still in use today was erected in 1894-95 by Filbert Porter & Co. It is a Pratt through truss bridge, pin-connected and with a secondary system of bracing.
4 To anyone crossing the bridge, it is evident that the overhead segments are exceptionally heavy. This is because the original design was for a double deck bridge, but the upper deck was not built. The original plan is an early example of transportation engineering with respect to the approaches to the bridge levels. 5 The bridge is 600 feet long, 40 feet wide, and connects Kelly Drive at Calumet Street with the West River Drive at Neill Drive on the opposite side of the Schuylkill. The abutments and two piers are of stone masonry. At the time of construction, James H. Windrim was the Director of Public Works and George S. Webster was Chief Engineer. The cost of the bridge was $262,000, in contrast with $102,000 for the City Avenue Bridge which was 712 feet long and had been built with private funds but was later purchased by the city. 6


1  See Workshop of the World "Fairmount Dam."
2  Fred Perry Powers, "Early Schuylkill Bridges," Philadelphia History, vol. 1, no. 11, (1914), pp. 306-308.
3  See Charles E. Peterson, "The Spider Bridge, A Curious Work at the Falls of Schuylkill, 1816,"Canal History and Technology Proceedings, vol. v, March 22, 1986, pp. 243-59.
4  Richard Webster, Philadelphia Preserved (Philadelphia, 1976), p. 231.
5  "View of Proposed Falls Bridge over Schuylkill River, Department of Public Works, Bureau of Surveys, Dec. 1894, Philadelphia," (Philadelphia City Archives).
6  Joseph Jackson, Encyclopedia of Philadelphia, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia, 1933), p. 329.

Update May 2007 (by Jane Mork Gibson):
The Falls Bridge built in 1895 is still an active part of the transportation system in Philadelphia. It is a Petit through-truss structure, pin-connected with a secondary system of bracing. The original plans called for a double-decked bridge, but the upper level was never built. The two approaches for the upper deck on the east bank were to go from (1) where the Schuylkill Falls Housing Project was built and (2) parallel with Ridge Avenue to Midvale Avenue. On the west bank, the upper deck would span the approach to the lower deck as well as the Reading Railroad tracks, going to the top of the Falls road, now Neill Drive.

The upper deck was never built, probably because of the excessive cost, and the need to displace existing structures on the site of the approaches to the bridge. The city had appropriated $300,000 for the total bridge construction, and with $262,000 already spent on the supports and the lower level, completion of the upper level was never done. Beside the cost of the upper level itself, there would have been additional cost in acquiring land for the access ramps for the upper level with such sites as the Police and Fire Houses and the Odd Fellows’ Hall to be acquired. A newspaper article circa July 1901, described the situation:

When the bridge was started, nearly ten years ago, the great piers were constructed on solid bedrock. When the lower deck was completed the appropriation became exhausted, and the bridge was never finished. The plans provide for a double-decked structure, having three main spans, each of 93 feet between centers of piers; a driveway 50 feet wide, and two sidewalks, each ten feet wide, making a total width of 70 feet for the upper deck. The lower deck contains a driveway 26 feet wide, and two sidewalks each 12 feet wide.

The lower deck ends with the main spans and connects near the present grade with the Falls road, on the south, and Park drive and Ridge avenue, on the north.

It is proposed to continue the upper deck north and south from the ends of the main spans, upon a plate girder construction, supported upon columns, which will cross, with proper clearance, the Philadelphia & Reading Railway tracks on the south, and connect with Midvale avenue. On the north it will connect with School lane, and, by means of a lateral approach, with Penn street, the Park drive and Ridge Avenue. The first-named thoroughfare will remain practically unchanged as to grades.

The bridge will be constructed entirely of steel, with asphalt on driveways and footways.

With success attending the request of Chief Webster a complete transformation of the west side of Ridge Avenue between Midvale avenue and Laboratory will undoubtedly take place. The winding roadway by which the upper deck of the bridge will connect with the Park drive will begin according to the plans as at first prepared at a point but a short distance above Midvale avenue and will, no doubt, necessitate the removal of the hostelry now occupying the old Tissot property, and all the stores between that point and Calumet street, but also the Police and Fire Houses and Odd Fellows’ Hall as well...

The original opening of the Falls Bridge in June 1895 was greatly celebrated because it provided a much needed link between the two sides of the river. The colors of the bridge were quite flamboyant—buff, red, and white. Great was the expectation that this iron bridge would never be swept down the river as had been the case with previous bridges. Current plans to light the bridge are under way.

The Historic American Engineering Record conducted a study of the Falls Bridge in 1998, and the file can be accessed on line as HAER No. PA-35. The file includes a line drawing of the proposed double-decker bridge as well as photographs taken during construction and at the time of documentation.


See also:

Historic American Engineering Record - Falls Bridge.