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How Bucks County lost and then saved its covered bridges (Part 3)

Today, Bucks County is fortunate to have 12 covered bridges for its citizens to enjoy, thanks to preservation efforts in 1958 and 1959 related to the highly publicized effort to save South Perkasie’s Covered Bridge.

Between 1919 and 1958, the county already had lost nearly two dozen covered bridges, mostly because of road improvement projects. But a preservation movement started in the 1930s culminated with the South Perkasie bridge’s successful 1958 move, funded by local citizens.

The South Perkasie Bridge move in August 1958 made headlines and led to preservation efforts in Bucks County and Pennsylvania.

Before World War I, the Sproul Road Act of 1911 led to the creation of a state highway system in Pennsylvania, with an active Department of Highways coordinating that effort. A federal road and bridge funding act pumped more money into Pennsylvania in 1921, with the state providing matching funds.[1]

All Posts In The Series

 

Bucks County prepared for the state takeover of some of its roads and bridges in 1919 when county engineer Oscar Martin surveyed and photographed more than 300 bridges, including at least 40 covered bridges owned by the county since 1820. The state soon demolished covered bridges in Holland, Kintnersville, New Britain, and Lower Southampton in 1921 as part of road-improvement efforts, replacing them with cement or steel structures.[2]

Kintnersville Covered Bridge was demolished in 1921. Trolley tracks ran next to the bridge. Image: Theodore Burr Society.

Castle Valley Bridge was on the original version of Almshouse Road outside Doylestown. The state removed it in 1930 when the road was re-routed to Lower State Road. Image: Theodore Burr Society.

Then in 1929, state lawmakers granted control of all bridges on county roads to the state Department of Highways. Another 16 covered bridges were demolished during the following decade.[3]

However, during this period, the first objections to covered bridge demolition policies started in Bucks County.  In 1935, the Delaware Valley Protective Association, a group formed to preserve the Delaware River Division Canal, protested the state’s demolition of the Neely’s Mill Covered Bridge at Bowman’s Hill. State officials reached an agreement with the group to move it to a nearby park, but the state ordered the effort halted after the bridge had been moved 1,000 feet to an on-ground location. By 1939, the Bucks County Federation of Women’s Clubs advocated for covered bridge preservation and noted that the Neely’s Mill Bridge was a “skeleton” where it remained.

State officials abandoned Neely’s Bridge at Bowman’s Hill After its move stalled. Image: Theodore Burr Society.

By 1939, Perkasie residents were complaining about the condition of state- and county-owned covered bridges and questioning county officials over the potential removal of the South Perkasie Covered Bridge, which had been in road service since 1832. The Kiwanis Club petitioned the county to recondition the South Perkasie bridge. (A local resident, Andy Schuler, also requested the county move the bridge to nearby Lenape Park if it were to demolish it.)[5]

The Perkasie Central News said on October 13, 1939, that the county decided to repair the South Perkasie Covered Bridge after it demolished Steeley’s Covered Bridge, which sat two miles northeast of the South Perkasie bridge on Branch Road. The Central News noted the South Perkasie bridge “will likely remain for another generation at least” in service.[6] That prediction came true when in 1957, the county announced plans to replace the South Perkasie Covered Bridge – a decision that had implications for regional covered bridge preservation.

Steeley's Bridge

In 1937, Steeley’s Bridge near Perkasie shows why residents were critical of bridge repair efforts. Image: Theodore Burr Society.

In the generation between, the public and governmental attitudes toward covered bridges, especially in Bucks County, changed significantly. In 1943, Richard Sanders Allen began publishing the magazine Covered Bridge Topics, which led to the formation of the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, based in New Hampshire, in 1949.  Groups within Bucks County also promoted covered bridge tourism. The Bucks County Historical Tourism Commission, Bucks County Traveler magazine and the Delaware Valley Protective Association wrote about covered bridges, including suggestions about how to take photographs.

Robert J McClellan’s paintings in Bucks County Traveler magazine told the story of many “departed” bridges. Image: Theodore Burr Society.

On May 7, 1956, Perkasie Borough Council asked the three Bucks County commissioners to remove the South Perkasie Covered Bridge as a traffic hazard. “It is expected this will cause a great deal of concern to residents of the area,” the Morning Call of Allentown reported.[8] Council said increased motor traffic from the U.S. Gauge plant in neighboring Sellersville caused it to consider the bridge unsafe. In October 1957, the commissioners condemned the bridge, but they delayed its removal to the summer of 1958. (A commission clerk told the Morning Call the commissioners had wanted to demolish the bridge in 1953 but faced strong objections from “local historians.”)

Soon after the announcement, the Perkasie Historical Society said it would lead an effort to move the covered bridge to nearby Lenape Park. In March 1958, the Society and the Delaware Valley Protective Association began raising funds for the South Perkasie Covered Bridge move, and that same week, the Bucks County Planning Commission asked for the county to save its covered bridges as a policy because of their “peculiar historical value” and their role in promoting county tourism.[9]

The South Perkasie bridge’s fate in 1958 was subject to public debate among county officials.

A county court decision in July 1958 cleared the way for the Perkasie Historical Society to move the bridge during a four-day period in August 1958, in time for Bucks County to start building a replacement bridge. By that time, the Society raised nearly enough money to move the bridge and received permission to relocate it to borough property (along with a $500 borough contribution to the moving fund).

The move didn’t go as planned. It took eight days, instead of four, as the bridge’s movers navigated around a residential neighborhood, using cranes and trucks to move the bridge. The bridge’s struggles, which had been discussed in regional newspapers for months, made national headlines. On August 23, 1958, an AP picture of the bridge became a national wire photo that appeared on many front pages across the country.

Perkasie’s bridge is front page news – in Dayton, Ohio, – on August 23, 1958.

Other national stories reported on the bridge’s successful move by Perkasie’s citizens. The South Perkasie Covered Bridge move generated significant publicity about covered bridge preservation, which soon would make any state and county efforts to remove the wooden structures problematic.

After the 1958 Perkasie bridge move, more groups voiced their opposition to any government action to harm covered bridges in Bucks County. In 1959, the Theodore Burr Covered Bridge Society, a statewide organization, formed and announced it would oppose the state’s plans to demolish the Sheard’s Mill Covered Bridge in East Rockhill Township. The Bucks County Parks Board and the Bucks County Township Officials Association then joined efforts to block future demolitions.

On August 15, 1959, Covered Bridge Day commemorated the South Perkasie covered bridge’s reopening to the public. Bucks County was one of the event’s sponsors, along with the groups that saved the bridge and the Burr Society. Governor David Lawrence and Philadelphia mayor Richardson Dilworth sent representatives to the event in Perkasie, which featured a large automobile caravan that toured nine county covered bridges. The Bucks County commissioners also attended the event, signaling their support. The South Perkasie Covered Bridge would be the last covered bridge to be forcibly moved or demolished in Bucks County by government officials.

Bucks County newspapers joined the call for bridge preservation in 1959.

Footnotes

    [1] Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Historical Context for Transportation Networks in Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1998), 35. The PHMC context document is comprehensive with multiple citations to primary sources about the roads, river and bridge networks in the state until 1956.

    [2] Bridge Book 1919 (Doylestown, PA; Bucks County Commissioners, 1919-1939)

  [3] Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Historical Context for Transportation Networks, 38.

  [4] Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Historical Context for Transportation Networks, 48.

    [5] “Speakin’ O’ Things,” The Central News (Perkasie, Pa.), November 10, 1938, 2.

    [6] “Local News,” The Central News (Perkasie, Pa.), October 13, 1939, 7.

   [7] Lola Bennett, Covered Bridges National Historic Landmarks Context Study (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2012).

    [8] “Covered Bridge in Perkasie May Be Doomed,” The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.), May 8, 1956, 6.

   [9] “Perkasie Residents Act to Preserve Covered Bridge Condemned By County,” The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.), March 5, 1958, 3.

    [10] “Planners Urge Preserving Bucks Covered Bridges,” The Bristol Daily Courier (Bristol, Pa.), March 8, 1958, 3.

2 Comments

Great series on Bucks County covered bridges. I grew up a quarter of a mile from Sheard’s Mill Bridge in East Rockhill Township, so I have an affinity for covered bridges. I did not realize that they had considered demolishing our bridge, but then, I was a teenager and I wasn’t focused on township matters. I am so glad they decided against demolishing it. I was just out there in May of this year. Ever since I moved away, forty plus years ago, I go back a few times a year to take photos and to reminisce about my twenty-seven years living in the country.

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