If you drive into or out of Lancaster on East King Street, you might not even realize that you’re crossing the Conestoga River on a bridge. In a car, you’re over it in an instant. It’s near impossible to see the water, unless you’re walking. But, this is a super-important location in our community’s history.
You probably have learned about Lancaster’s badge of honor as America’s oldest inland city. There are various reasons why, but a hugely compelling reason for our thriving over the centuries was that we had a road that connected us to Philadelphia. Built in the late 1700s, this east-west highway replaced other routes that entered the County and the then-Borough from the south. The road was also one of the very first to be planned and then “macadamized” which provided a stable stone-covered surface in lieu of dirt roads that grew out of Native American footpaths. The linchpin of this road was Abram Witmer’s bridge.
In 1807, it was described thusly…“From the hill just above, I was struck with the romantic situation of a fine bridge over the creek below, more particularly as I came upon it unexpectedly. The creek is about eighty yards wide, tumbling its rapid current, over an irregular rocky bottom and disappearing round the foot of a wooded hill…” (Fortescue Cuming’s Sketches of a tour to the western country)
In the above northwest-looking image, you can see the Conestoga Inn—still standing—with barns, a few homes, and nothing but agricultural fields behind it. A lovely nine-arch stone bridge provided travelers easy passage across the river, becoming ever more swollen by increased runoff.
The 20′ width seemed phenomenally ample for the traffic when it was built. Originally, there simply was a ford (i.e. flat rocks allowing for wheels, feet, and hooves to cross when the water wasn’t too deep). Abram Witmer built a wooden bridge nearby, but it was “not constructed of material sufficiently durable, nor calculated to sustain heavy burdens, which, since the completion of the said road, are daily passing over the same.” This assessment was part of a legislative act in 1787 authorizing Witmer to erect a bridge and charge a toll for its use.
Toll booths were created all along the road from Philadelphia to Lancaster. The one depicted below was positioned at the east end of the bridge and another at the top of the hill near Broad Street.
These toll booths were joined by Public Houses nearly every mile along the way. It was indeed quite the commercial enterprise and fascinatingly surveyed in 1806 with descriptions of landmarks, farms, intersections, and even included a sketch of Witmer’s Bridge.
A stone plaque was placed into the north parapet commemorating Witmer’s achievement. That plaque was preserved and re-set during PennDOT’s 1933 replacement.
The upper section reads as follows:
A Law of an Enlightened
Passed April 4, 1798,
Sanctioned this Monument
of the Public Spirit
The lower section is a milestone (of which there used to be many more all along the road) indicating that Philadelphia was 61 miles away and Lancaster was but 1 mile.
Witmer was supposed to be able to sell the bridge to the County so that the bridge would be toll-free, but legal wrangling ensued and extended past his death in 1818. Nine years later, the County offered a purchase price of $26,000, half of the construction cost. Abram’s brother David was the executor of the estate and ended up being charged by the other heirs with maladministration of Witmer’s estate.
But, the bridged survived for another century, being expanded with a pedestrian walkway cantilevered onto the north face. In the 1830s, a large dam was constructed about a mile and a half downstream for the City’s first water works. The impoundment created a step pool stretching all the way to Pleasure Road. Such an enormous step-pool became something of a lake that beckoned recreational pursuits, including steamship paddle-wheel boats, canoeists, swimmers, fishing, parkland promenades, 17 floating houses, and an elevated dance pavilion attached to the Conestoga Inn.
The above-pictured trolley bridge was added to the south of Witmer’s bridge in the late 1800s. The below postcard image depicts the bridge, tollhouse, automobile, and trolley. Just imagine what a hub of very local navigation this had become! Not truly a port since there was no navigable means of connecting to the Susquehanna, but more of an enclosed harbor. Annually, flowers were cast into the Conestoga from the deck of the bridge in commemoration of fallen soldiers.
When the Great Depression struck, Americans were put to work in large numbers on many needed public works projects across the country. The replacement of Witmer’s Bridge (then far too narrow) was one of those projects.
The trolley bridge survived this project, but not for long. Most of the trolley lines were removed and their metal repurposed.
The replacement bridge also faced river problems, especially during various floods such as Agnes and Irene/Lee.
Here’s a picture of today’s bridge taken from the closest vantage point I could achieve to mimic the top photo.
I wonder what the next version will look like and when it might be planned. Nothing on the books for now, so far as I know.