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How a mile long river bridge was built in 21 days

Railroad Bridge between Wrightsville and Columbia (believed to be taken during 1897, York County History Center)

This photo of the mile long steel railroad bridge over the Susquehanna River, linking Wrightsville and Columbia, is believed to include some of the workmen that erected the bridge in 21 working days during 1897. The Pennsylvania Railroad used the divide and conquer method to accelerate bridge construction.

The railroad utilized two bridge building companies, Pencoyd Iron Works and Edgemoor Bridge Works, each with a responsibility to simultaneously build one-half of the bridge across the Susquehanna River. Competition and the fear of being the company that lags behind in holding up its end of the schedule are significant motivating factors.

Divide and conquer was used successfully on many railroad building projects; the most notable the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.  However this method to accelerate construction was also used on many smaller projects; such as the competition between the Delta track-laying crew and the Bel Air track-laying crew to see which could lay the most track in completing the Maryland Central Railroad in 1884.

Building of the 1897 Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge

During the Civil War, Union forces burned the wooden covered bridge in 1863, between Wrightsville and Columbia, to prevent advancing Confederate troops from crossing the Susquehanna River. For the next several years, ferry service was the only means of traveling across the Susquehanna River at this location.

From that point, the story is picked up in an article within the trade publication The Railway and Engineering Review. The article is entitled “REBUILDING OF THE PENNSYLVANIA RAILROAD BRIDGE AT COLUMBIA, PA.” Quoting from that article on page 415 of the July 17, 1897 issue:

The Pennsylvania Railroad Co. bought the old piers in 1869, renewing the superstructure with Howe truss spans except in the middle of the river where one of the original spans was divided by the construction of an intermediate pier, and two iron spans were here interposed as a fire guard. The bridge forms a portion of the York branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad running from a connection with the main line at Columbia to York, Pa.

[Prior to the September 30, 1896 cyclone,] the bridge consisted of the two iron spans above mentioned, each 100 ft. in length, twenty-five through Howe truss spans, each about 198 ft. in length, one Howe truss span 150 ft. in length over the outlet of the Pennsylvania canal at the left shore [Columbia side] of the river, and one iron deck span 89 ft. long at the right shore [Wrightsville side] of the river.

All the wooden trusses except the 150 ft. span over the Pennsylvania Canal were destroyed by a wind storm [on September 30, 1896]. The masonry was not seriously damaged. It was decided to rebuild the bridge with Pratt truss steel spans designed to carry a single track railroad below and a highway on the upper chord. In re-constructing the bridge the two iron spans near the center of the river were removed and replaced with one span 198 ft. in length. The original masonry was of rubble laid in lime mortar. The piers were quite massive, but the stone used was small. The original piers had been replaced from time to time as it became necessary to renew them, until at the time the bridge was destroyed there remained only eight of the original rubble piers. These were all taken down to the foundation level and rebuilt with first class ashlar work.

The total length of the new superstructure is 5,285 ft. comprising twenty-six spans of about 198 ft. each and one span of 150 ft. Contracts for the construction of the new spans were placed on the 22nd of January 1897, fourteen spans being ordered from the Pencoyd Iron Works, and thirteen spans from the Edgemoor Bridge Works. The contracts required these two companies to complete the erection on or before the first day of July 1897. Before the contracts were closed it was thought advisable to modify the original plan so as to provide temporarily to carry both the highway and the railroad across on the lower floor, the design being slightly modified for this purpose. The upper deck of the bridge was therefore not completed, but will be utilized for highway purposes at some future time.

The two bridge companies took the field and unloaded their first material on the ground about March 25. The Edgemoor Company started to raise iron on their first span on April 16, while the Pencoyd Company did not begin to raise iron until about April 21. The Edgemoor Company swung their thirteenth and last span on the 7th of May, and the Pencoyd Company swung their fourteenth and last span on the 11th of May. The entire superstructure was therefore erected in twenty-one working days. The shortest time consumed in the erection of one span was eight and one-half working hours.

Both companies were very well equipped with engines and tools for the purpose. The Pencoyd Company used two travelers [working from the Wrightsville side], thus enabling them to work at two points of the same span, or at two different spans at once. The Edgemoor Company used only one traveler [working from the Columbia side] consisting of four bents and occupying in length the equivalent of about half of a span. The bridge companies kept one gang of men constantly at work framing and raising the false works ahead of the erecting gangs.

The weather and other conditions were very favorable during the entire progress of the field work, and there were no serious delays from any cause.

The gross weight of the steel spans is about 1,410,000 lbs. These spans were furnished in place ready for cross-ties at a cost of about $282,000 exclusive of painting. All material was made of soft steel except pins and rollers, which are of medium steel. For information on this work we are indebted to the courtesy of Wm. A. Pratt, engineer of bridges for the railroad company.

The first engine and coach crossed the newly erected steel bridge from Wrightsville to Columbia on June 5, 1897. The Pennsylvania Railroad charged a toll for vehicle and pedestrian use; although trains always had first priority. The upper deck was never completed for vehicular traffic. The last train crossed the bridge on March 13, 1958. The bridge was dismantled for scrap during 1963 and 1964; while the stone piers remain.

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