Sunday, September 27, 2020

Big Sewickley Creek Bridge 1917: "Longer to complete than did the building of the Panama Canal"


Big Sewickley Creek Bridge
From Allegheny Co. looking north into Ambridge, Beaver County
credit: Allegheny Co. Dept. of Public Works

Streetcar tracks crossed the bridge in 1917. The dark building just above the photo's center and the first building on the right were on the part of Beaver Rd./Beaver St. that leads into Ambridge from the bridge. To the dark building's left is a home that I think was on Bank St. and the backs of some buildings in the 300 block of First St. The dark building and all buildings to its left have been razed. The tall building farther up the left side of the street must be the S. P. Kristufek Department Store. If you enlarge the photo enough, you can see a horse standing next to the Kristufek store. And, above the first utility pole on the right, a carriage.

The nearest building on the right is still standing; Hark's Place bar is now there, 70 Beaver St./Rd. Beyond that, the building with all the porches was one of the infamous "Crackerbox" tenements that stood on the hill above Merchant St./Beaver Rd., razed in 1960.

Far in the background are homes in the 100 block of Merchant St. And behind them, the domes of Holy Ghost Orthodox Church, 210 Maplewood Ave.


Long before Ohio River Boulevard connected Ambridge with Allegheny Co., the small Big Sewickley Creek Bridge provided the connection.

The Economy Centennial was being celebrated when Ambridge's June 6, 1924, Citizen* newspaper noted on its front page: 
an important milestone in the history of Ambridge...the beginning of the end of the work on the Big Sewickley Creek bridge between Ambridge and Fair Oaks, which has been a bone of contention between two counties, a street car company, residents of three boroughs and tourists of 48 States for a number of years.
Because that very morning, a contractor had started pouring concrete in the bridge's road bed and expected the work to be completed "in about two weeks."

Even though the bridge is only about 200 feet long, that same Citizen article claimed it took "longer to complete than did the building of the Panama Canal and has cost enough to build a bridge across the Ohio River."

The history of the bridge's construction is murky. The Citizen article said Allegheny County records showed a bridge at the site    "[96] years ago" according to a construction inspector, who said he had found a 1828 "road view plan" showing a bridge at the same location.

However, the inspector's history was questioned by John Frederick (Fred) Knoedler, who was a non-Harmonist caretaker of Old Economy and its property both before and after the Harmony Society dissolved. Knoedler said that according to Harmonist records, "the Economites drove through the creek to get to Leetsdale" during their early years in Economy. But, he says, "much later," there was a bridge across the creek when the Harmonists had pastures on both sides of Big Sewickley Creek. Knoedler remembered "wire gates hung from the bridge to keep the [Harmony Society's] cattle from going up the creek." 

The Citizen also said that "during the youth of John Duss," who was born in 1860, the bridge was condemned, and Duss designed an arch under the bridge to strengthen it. "The original arch still stands, but is is now encased in concrete."

A 1906 G. M. Hopkins & Co. map shows a narrow bridge in that spot. Eventually, the bridge was raised and the walls heighted to accommodate street cars.

Then, during the WWI years, a decision was made by some entity to further widen and rebuild the bridge. Beaver County's commissioners claimed they had no money for such a project. So Allegheny Co. undertook the work on its own. I believe the photo above shows that reconstruction project. 

But the work did not go well. In fact it went so wrong that The Citizen said:
The [whale] may have swallowed Jonah, according to tradition, but no one who ever had any thing to do with the Big Sewickley Creek Bridge from that time on would believe that Jonah was anywhere but right handy to that bridge. His hoodoo seemed to be always present.
What was supposed to be a one year project took two. Twice high water moved the derrick. Once all the bridge's "large stones were washed down the creek, requiring lines to be tied to them to 'snake' them out of the creek." 

Even after the construction project finished, problems continued when the streetcar company said it wouldn't pay to move its tracks. So in 1923, the two counties agreed to do the job themselves. But then, after the contractor had moved one of the tracks, he claimed that he didn't have enough money to finish the job. And the work dragged on and on into the spring on 1924--bad weather didn't help. But finally--finally--the bridge construction appeared to be nearing completion.

But wait, there's more!

If you enlarge the photo at the top, you can see what appears to be the back of a carriage, and near that carriage, part of a sign peeking out on the right side of a pole. And if you're like me, you thought, "I wish I could read what that sign says. 

Well, wish granted. Because there's another photo! And while the photo was focused on the bridge's stone arch, it shows more than that.

Big Sewickley Creek Bridge
from the Allegheny County side of Big Sewickley Creek
credit: Allegheny Co. Dept. of Public Works

First, an enlargement of the sign: 

Ambridge speed limit sign
Merchant St. near Valley Rd.

The sign says "Ambridge Borough, Speed Limit, 15 miles per hour." It appears to have stood about where the "Welcome to the Borough of Ambridge" sign is now, just north of the intersection of Valley Rd. and Merchant St.

An enlarged photo also shows a tailor's signs painted on the windows of the building with the awning, now Hark's Place.  I think the left window says "Merchant Tailor." The one on the right window says "John [last name I couldn't read], Tailor."

The sign on the side of the one story wooden building says "Favorite Cigarettes." While there are more signs on the side and on the front, I can't make them out. 

Could the house on the right side of the photo, above those two buildings, have been on Valley Rd.? And the houses on the very top of the hill on Glenwood Dr.?

And towards the right side of the photo, a man wearing a hat is standing, looking toward the photographer. And us.


Thanks to Debby Rabold, Bell Acres Borough's historian, for sending me the two photos above. Debby has also written about the Ambridge-Leetsdale Big Sewickley Creek Bridge and provides a somewhat different history of its construction than the one written in The Citizen. She also has included some early photos of that bridge. Here's a link to Debby's article: "Big Sewickley Creek...Early Bridges," which also includes information about other bridges that cross Big Sewickley Creek. 

* The Citizen's June 6, 1924, article was republished in the March 21, 1939, Daily Citizen. The latter did correct several typos in the original article, including that a bridge was at the site "6 years ago." That befuddled me at first, because I knew that the bridge had been built before 1918. In 1939, the bridge was referred to as the "Ambridge-Fair Oaks Bridge."