Ongoing series casts light on historic and unique sites that may be at risk of deterioration or demolition.
What local historians describe as America’s oldest stone arch bridge is not in Old Philadelphia or Germantown, but in the Holmesburg section of the Northeast.
Drivers of the 17,000 vehicles that cross it each day probably don’t even know they are on a bridge – let alone one with a significant role in the Revolutionary War.
The Pennypack Creek Bridge carries Frankford Avenue over the creek just north of Solly Avenue. On Saturday, Oct. 13, at 11 a.m., the Holmesburg Civic Association will join with the Friends of Pennypack Park and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to unveil a state historical marker commemorating the significance of the modest, sturdy stone span.
The last big celebration at the site took place in 1997, when the bridge turned 300. “Over the next 15 years we wondered why this bridge didn’t have a marker,” explained Fred Moore, who served as president of the Holmesburg civic group for a decade. “What it came down to was, nothing like that gets done in Northeast Philly.”
So last year, the civic association applied for a $5,000 grant from the Neighborhood Initiative of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, which had previously awarded the group a grant for banners that welcomed visitors to historic Holmesburg. The new grant would cover the costs of purchasing and installing the state marker and for a walking tour brochure of Holmesburg’s historic sites.
The story of the bridge is compelling. The 73-foot span was constructed in 1697 as part of improvements ordered by William Penn and the Provincial Council to the then-named King’s Highway, which carried horse, coach and cart traffic from Philadelphia to Trenton, New York and Boston.
The most significant event in its history occurred in 1781. The Revolutionary troops by then were exhausted, poorly funded and supplied, and desperate for a change in the course of the war. French Count Rochambeau provided the turnabout, with fresh troops and cash. He and General Washington plotted a feigned march to attack British troops in New York, deciding instead to surround Cornwallis’ army in Yorktown, Va. On September 2-3, the American and French troops left the Red Lion Inn in Bensalem, Bucks County, and traveled down King’s Highway, over the Pennypack Creek Bridge, on their way to Yorktown, where the War for Independence would end.
“There is probably no other structure they would have marched over that still exists,” Moore noted. “Those three arches [of Pennypack Creek Bridge] are exactly the same as they were when it was built and when the troops crossed over.
Delegates of the First and Second Continental Congress would have traveled over the bridge, and Washington would cross it again on his way to the first presidential inauguration in New York in 1789.
The bridge was paved and widened for streetcars in the 19th century, and the stone arches were lined with concrete in the 1950s. Repairs to the upstream pier noses and repointing were performed in the late 1990s. And the bridge was incorporated as part of the Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Trail in 2009. Its length now is about 154 feet, with two 25-foot arches and one 13-foot arch supporting it.
“There is one noticeable crack,” Moore said, “but it doesn’t impede its use or the structural integrity of the bridge. It needs to be looked at. But the bridge is in very good shape. Trucks and buses cross it every day; this is not some rinkydink bridge in a remote spot. It was always a main road.”
Most area residents are not aware of the importance of the Pennypack Creek Bridge. “Holmesburg is not a museum community. People are more concerned about jobs and the economy, the homeless, and drug users in the neighborhood of the bridge,” Moore said. “We have cleaned it up as a result of the October event. We need to keep it that way.
“The marker will make more people aware of the bridge. And we’re thinking of forming a Friends of the Pennypack Creek Bridge that will be active and bring attention to this site all the time.”
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