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River Guide: The Bridge Club – PA Railroad

This member of the Bridge Club is by far the most magnificent. A towering stone edifice that continues to serve our community, it is seen by many and recognized by few.

1910 colorized photo of RR Bridge & water works - 2018-04-12 FB post in The Lancastrian
1910 colorized photo of RR Bridge & City water works – Image from “Lancastrian” Facebook post

Whenever I travel to Philadelphia or New York, I always prefer to use Amtrak. Soon after I board and settle into my seat, the trees and buildings are whizzing by. Before I know it, the houses are getting farther and farther apart until farmland dominates the view through the window. Somehow though, I’ve missed crossing over the Conestoga River. The speed of the train crossing the bridge and being eighty feet above the water make it easy to miss.

PA RR bridge after snowstorm - LCHS from FB post 12-28-2017
Image from “The Heritage of Lancaster” by John Ward Willson Loose

Many folks drive on the Walnut Street Extension, PennDOT’s Route 23 highway, through the westernmost of the bridge’s arches. That 4-lane arterial was built in the 1980s and obliterated several quaint old parts of our history. Once there was a road along the Conestoga called Grofftown Road. Only a few pieces of that road bed remain.

1938 vs. 2018 (looking south)

1938 : Now-removed Grofftown Road is visible in the westerly arch.

2018: Walnut Street extension and Pleasure Road intersection is visible in the foreground

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What’s even easier to miss is that the bridge is made of stone and was built more than 130 years ago. The current version was built to replace an old wrought-iron truss bridge. This older iron truss structure was part of the original railroad installation from the 1830s and 1840s. Back then, the trip from Philadelphia to Lancaster took an astonishingly brief five hours, compared with an overland stagecoach two-to-three-day excursion.

While the current stone bridge was being built, the trains kept running, but were directed across a temporary wooden structure parallel to the stone bridge. That wooden “falsework” is visible in several of the photos. One of the pictures shows the tracks being shifted over during the completion of the bridge. Look at the crowd that came out to watch…! One would probably need a drone to capture this point of view today.

Tracks being shifted over
Image from “The Heritage of Lancaster” by John Ward Willson Loose

There was also an unofficial area for swimming and fishing at the end of Pleasure Road. Several local history books refer to that area as the “Working Man’s Country Club.”

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Image courtesy of LancasterHistory

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If you drive out of the City under the bridge, you can notice some protruding stones around each of the arches. These were intentionally set to provide masonry connections in the future for widening the bridge. Automotive transportation has stalled that widening for the foreseeable future.

Two other events were spectacular enough to attract crowds of morbid curiosity. In 1960, a 17-car mail train jumped the tracks on the bridge sending 2 cars into the river.

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In June of 1979, a broken axle caused a derailment again on the bridge. 150 passengers had to stand-by for about two before responders could assist them all to get off the train and safely off of the bridge.

In several older photos of the bridge, the second of the City’s Water Works were artfully framed. Streamside vegetation and inaccessibility have obscured many of those views. These old photographs and their contemporary counterparts offer some prompting of your imagination in ways that words can’t.

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Photo courtesy of Donald Kautz Photography

Click here to read about other members of the Conestoga Bridge Club.

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