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Burr’s 1815 McCall’s Ferry bridge was no match for Susquehanna ice

Interior of covered bridge with Burr arch truss
Courtesy of pennsylvaniacoveredbridges.com.

In 1801 famed engineer and architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe was commissioned by Pennsylvania to survey the Lower Susquehanna, with an eye to navigation and canals. A few years later, in 1807, Latrobe also reported on the Susquehanna to the U.S. Congress: “Four miles below Burkhalter’s ferry, the river arrives at the high range of granite hills, abounding in copper, in which the gap mine is situated, and at a place called McCall’s ferry, it narrows to the width of sixteen perches. Here I attempted to find bottom with a line of one hundred and eighty feet, but failed, notwithstanding every precaution taken to procure a perpendicular descent of the weight attached to it. Through this pass the water is rapid, but smooth and safe. The river rises here rapidly, and very suddenly after the fall of rain above; and it will never be possible to erect a safe bridge at this place, so often mentioned as the most practicable.”

That advice was not heeded. See below for my recent York Sunday News column on prominent bridge builder Theodore Burr’s dramatically successful, but short-lived, bridging of the McCall’s Ferry gorge.

Theodore Burr’s 1815-1818 bridge at McCall’s Ferry

Theodore Burr (1771-1822) is well-known as a nineteenth-century designer and builder of bridges. His Burr arch trusses were used to build six covered bridges across the Susquehanna River between 1811 and 1818.

The most dramatic of these endeavors was bridging the extremely deep, very narrow gorge at McCall’s Ferry. His February 26, 1815 letter to fellow bridge builder Reuben Field conveys triumph and adversity “getting up the long arch at McCall’s Ferry. The arch is, without doubt, the greatest in the world.” Enumerating the difficulties, Burr states that the river width there was 690 to 348 feet across, from high to low water, with depth estimated at 150 feet. (Fourteen years earlier, while surveying the lower Susquehanna, Benjamin Henry Latrobe let down a line there of 180 feet without touching bottom.)

Burr’s design consisted of two uneven arched segments. Owing to the great depth of the channel nearest the Lancaster County shore, the sole pier was constructed nearer the York County side. The longer span stretched over 360 feet from the Lancaster shore abutment to the river pier.

Although no surviving period illustrations are known, Burr describes the construction of the long arch and its harrowing installation in his letter to Field. He notes it was difficult to convey the process by which he “finally succeeded in surmounting the almost unconquerable difficulties opposed to its erection.”

He positioned eight “floats,” or rafts, along the Lancaster County shore. On each he constructed two “bents,” or frames, varying in height with the curve of the arch. “This made sixteen bents, on which the grand and enormous structure was raised, amidst tremendous storms and tempests, accompanied with floods and whirls and bursting of waters.” Burr describes that “in the darkest of nights” they had to travel on small timbers from one float to another to adjust $1,500 worth of supporting ropes to steady the structures as the water rose and fell from 10 to 12 feet during storms.

The completed arch stood on the floats “length-ways up and down the river along the shore of uneven points and projections of rocks, always in jeopardy.” The worst was still to come; Burr writes “on the 7th of December, we had the whole in readiness to move up to the abutment, and on the same day the anchor-ice began to run a little. The next (which was the day we had fixed upon to move the arch to its place) the ice ran in still greater quantities, and about one o’clock it stopped for the space of about half a mile, and began to crowd the floats. It continued to move for more than one hundred miles above, where the river is from one and a-half to two miles wide.”

The ice continued to press against the floats for the next three days, angling them so that the scaffolding supporting the arch began breaking apart, “the arch careening heavy towards the shore.” On December 12, Burr determined that the arch could only be saved by setting a capstan on the ice with attached ropes to steady the arch. There was a thaw before Christmas, but “Soon after, the weather became severe and having a mountain of ice upon us, the average height of which, for about a mile above and below us, was ten feet above the surface of the water at the shores.” He describes the body of ice moving down 25 to 35 feet, crushing half the floats against the rocky shore. “Still the arch remained unhurt and the scaffolding stood beyond expectation.”

On the 28th crews started leveling the ice so that the arch and scaffolding could be moved directly onto the surface. The men working on it “were in, up to their arms, forty times a day.” He explains that the ice was mostly “mush ice,” up to 60 feet deep, consisting of ice particles broken up traveling the rocky river bed down from Turkey Hill, about 15 miles to the north. Only the top few feet was solid ice.

Many workers labored from December 29th to January 8th getting the first half of the arch ready to move. Eight capstans were set up by the ninth, and working with runners and rollers, up to fifty men at a time, dealing with rain, snow and having to relevel the ice surface, moved the half arch nearly in place by the 19th. It took eight more days to get the other half into position. “Now we wheeled to the right and left, one-half of the arch to the abutment, and the other half to the pier.” They united the arch in the center, and after making sure it was as solid and tight as possible, the scaffolding was cut away during the afternoon and evening of the 31st, finishing at 8:30 p.m. “The whole now exhibited the grandest spectacle I ever saw. Aided by the light of the fires, we could plainly see the shore, and the arch rising from the abutment and extending itself west out of sight. It was a joyful moment to my brave fellows; and you may well suppose they gave way to the impulse, in loud and repeated hurras.”

He goes on to express to Field that the bulk of the workers were volunteers from both sides of the river, from 40 to 120 men a day. Liquor was abundant, but he only ever saw two men drunk. August Stoughton was the only man injured, falling 54 feet, hitting the braces twice falling into the water, but returning to work in a few days. Burr estimates that the four months labor “might have been done in four weeks of steady weather, without floods.”

The shorter span was put into place, decking laid and the bridge sided and roofed. Nothing, though, could protect it from the tremendous breakup of a massive ice jam which swept it away just three years later, on March 3, 1818. It was never rebuilt, and there was no bridge across the lower end of the county until the opening of the Norman Wood Bridge in 1968, 150 years later.

Twentieth century artist’s conception of McCall’s Ferry bridge