Old Newbie Bridge

THE TOP PHOTO shows the old New Bethlehem Bridge as it was being constructed in 1933, while the bottom photo shows the temporary bridge that was used during the construction project.

I put off writing this week’s column as long as I could because I wanted to see the results of Tropical Storm Gordon’s visit to the area. Admit it. We’re all weather junkies to one degree or another in this valley.

But can anybody blame us for keeping an eye on the Red Bank Creek? The same pretty stream responsible for New Bethlehem’s existence is also the source of heartache when it decides to throw a tantrum. As of 9 a.m. today (Monday), the jury is still out on whether this will be a small sob or a full-out thrashing fit complete with thrown dishes.

Now, for visitors to our town, you might have noticed a segment of the old bridge given a place of honor in the parklet across Liberty Street from A-Plus. Okay, that might seem like a hokey piece of small-town memorabilia. But it has meaning to it.

First constructed in 1933 to replace an earlier iron truss span, the old bridge survived the St. Patrick’s Day flood of 1936, the remnants of Hurricane Agnes in 1972 and the final catastrophe of 1996. That doesn’t include countless other weather events over the years.

So, what’s the big deal about an old iron bridge?

It’s a key link between Armstrong and Clarion counties, a major connection between the northern and southern parts of western Pennsylvania. It is a tie that binds our local people together.

But the old bridge was really a salute to the engineering and construction arts of the 1930s. It was built like the proverbial Mack truck or Timex watch. It was something that you could count on to be standing after the floodwaters receded.

Either Dennis Shaffer or Donna Hankey Wells shared a couple of photos on Facebook a couple of months ago of the bridge during its construction in 1933. Even better was a picture of the temporary wooden bridge downstream which carried vehicles across the creek. The span connected Grant Street in South Bethlehem with a site near the water plant in New Bethlehem.

Those two photos were the equivalent of seeing a unicorn and an apothecary jar in the same day for the Native. I had heard about the temporary bridge from my dad, but he would have been about two years old at the time and the story was a bit garbled. In his version, it was a pontoon bridge, not an honest-to-gosh structure with piers and guardrails.

Seeing it in the flesh, as it were, gave a few of us a deeper appreciation of modern construction. The temporary span was an all-wood affair, including the guardrails which were barely on the high side of rickety. On the other hand, the Great Depression was in full swing and money was tight for everyone, including the Pennsylvania Department of Highways.

The old iron bridge was a fixture for many years, a dreadful place in the wintertime if you were walking home from high school. This was especially true in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when miniskirts were all the rage. If there was a frigid wind blowing, you could count on having red chapped legs by the time you reached home.

Toward the end of its life, the bridge had a splash guard installed between the highway and the single sidewalk for pedestrians. The wind was just as cold in the wintertime, but at least you weren’t mud-spattered into the bargain.

Every few years in the summer months, a work crew from unknown parts showed up to give the bridge a good coating of paint. When I was a small child, I think that it was blackish. It was inelegant, and so it was painted silver and then blue in its later years.

No matter the chosen color, the painters ended up matching it at the end of the day. Thinking back to the faces I saw beneath the paint droplets and leather caps, the workers must have been Native Americans, perhaps from the Mohawk tribe. Men from that group were often recruited to walk on high iron and steel structures, and they walked up and over the bridge trusses as if they were taking a stroll around town.

Better them than me, a sentiment shared by more than a few people.

It was a bit of a thrill to stand on the bridge and lean on the latticework handrail while peering down into the water, or at the rocks if a dry summer was in progress. We always double-checked the safety of our purses and schoolbooks. If anything fell over the railing, it was gone and there was no getting it back.

The old bridge faced down its last flood in 1996, holding back the heap of debris formerly known as the scout hall. That was a photo that made the news in several markets. And the old span didn’t budge an inch.

Nevertheless, its decking took a beating and it was time for a modern upgrade. I was not living in the area during the conversion from vintage to new-and-improved. Perhaps that’s just as well.

The new bridge is wider and offers a walkway on either side, a concrete wall keeping dirty water droplets off pedestrians. It is a modern convenience and may develop its own character over the years. But you can’t beat the old iron one for reminding us of a certain place and time.

[Susan Kerr is a semi-retired freelance writer living in her hometown of New Bethlehem. Previously, she was the managing editor of a regional-interest magazine and a business journal in State College.]

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