CROSSING THE SCHUYLKILL RIVER
Updated: Aug 16, 2020
I am sure the first people-crossings of the river between the Twin-Boroughs, occurred long before the boroughs came into existence. Most likely they were made by American Indians, known as the Lenni-Lenape. The Lenape Indians were in this area for hundreds of years and it is well-known that they used the Schuylkill River, as well as the French Creek for hunting, fishing and trapping. It is also documented that they were trading furs with Pierre Bezaillion around 1690 right within the area that is now called Spring City.
By the 1700s there were early settlers, non-native Americans, who were farming in this area. One man, Lawrence Hipple, had a large tract of ground on the Chester County side of the Schuylkill River in East Vincent Township, where Spring City is now located. On early maps from the 1700s you can see his farmland and the area where our current day bridge stands, and it was clearly marked as Hipple’s Ford.
Yes, before there was a Royer’s Ford, there was a Hipple’s Ford. Lawrence Hipple did not run a ferry boat but the spot where a natural shelf can be found in the riverbed, provided a place where one could easily ford, or cross the river. A ford is basically a low spot in the river which provides a place where one can cross. In the summertime, the water would be very low, and you could just walk over, and in the winter, you might stay dry by going across on your horse. It also makes sense that it might be easier to construct a bridge in such a location.
In 1801 the Royer Brothers, Benjamin and David, acquired a portion of land formerly owned by Hipple and commenced building their farm homes. The road separating their farms, now known as Bridge Street, was long used before the Royer Brothers, as a well-traveled path to the ford that would become known as Royer’s Ford. The Royer brothers saw an opportunity to establish a business and make money by taking people over the river in a flatbed boat using a rope and pulley system. The location was just a short distance upstream from where the present-day bridge is located.
The first date we find indicating ferry service was in 1830 although we don’t have a specific date. We also see stories stating the charge was three cents a trip with no details.
THE FIRST BRIDGE
On September 7th of 1840, the ford was shut off from travel and the first bridge between the twin-boroughs was thrown open. The bridge was a wooden covered bridge It was a Town lattice bridge, built after the plan of the old Manayunk Bridge. It had three spans resting on two piers. It was one track wide, 360-foot-long, and twelve feet high. There was no separate walkway. It had a shingled roof and the sideboards were whitewashed. This first bridge cost $7260 and was operated as a toll bridge. It lasted ten years, until September 2, 1850, when it was washed away during a flood. A canal boat loaded with coal was swept into the river by the flood and carried downstream smashing into the Yost Grist Mill and then taking out the bridge. It is interesting to note that the tolls collected during these ten years totaled $5768, not enough to cover the cost of the bridge.
THE TOLL HOUSE
The toll house was built in the summer of 1840 by John Cox at a cost of $395. In September of the same year the first bridge opened. John Longacre was named as the first toll keeper. The structure was located on the Royersford side of the bridge, just a short distance up from the river bridge on the northern side of Main Street. Tolls were collected for 47 years, being stopped in 1887. The old toll house was removed in 1887.
THE BRIDGE THAT NEVER WAS
After the first bridge was washed away, the managers and stockholders held a meeting at Sam Custer’s Tavern just five days after the loss of the bridge. They voted to rebuild at once but made a crucial mistake when they decided to supervise the work themselves. A span from the Royersford side was completed out to the first pier. Likewise, a span was begun from the Spring City side. This span collapsed during construction and a few days later heavy rain saw the whole mass of debris float away. Since this intended structure was never completed, I do not consider it as bridge number two. Some authors do list five bridges, listing this as bridge number two. I will not list it as anything other than what it was: an attempt to build a bridge that failed. I will move on to the actual second bridge.
THE SECOND BRIDGE - “Another Covered Bridge”
In February of 1851, a contract for the erection of bridge number two, another lattice bridge, was awarded to Simon Hoyer, for $4200. This second bridge opened in October of 1851. It may have endured many high waters but fell victim to fire on May 4, 1884. The old Yost mill along with the covered bridge was destroyed. It is an unsolved mystery how the fire got started. Once again, the bridge's board of directors had a problem to solve. They met in September of that year and approved plans for a new iron bridge to be erected. The contract was awarded to the Phoenixville Bridge Company.
THE THIRD BRIDGE
The third bridge was completed in 1887 at a cost was $13,000. The Phoenix Bridge Company in nearby Phoenixville was known for its new-patented iron column that was used in both railroad and highway bridges. These iron columns, known for their superior strength, were manufactured by the Phoenix Iron Co. Soon thereafter, beams were being shipped on the canal and construction of the new bridge began. It is interesting to note that the large iron sign that was proudly displayed on the top did not have the town name but said "Phoenix Bridge Company." The bridge was later purchased by the Montgomery and Chester County Commissioners for $35,000 and declared free of toll. In one of the local stories of the times a reference was made to the new “Permanent Bridge”. That permanent structure would stand for only 38 years. The bridge was a vital link between the two towns. It was just as important then as it is now, probably more so. The closest alternate bridges back then were the same ones we use today, Linfield and Black Rock. The main difference is that in 1900 you were probably walking or in a horse and buggy. In 1922 the old iron bridge was dismantled and hauled away. The most common explanation given for the demise of this bridge was rust and deterioration. It seems as if there was a minimum of maintenance during its short lifespan. I do know when it was completed all the iron parts were painted a cream color with dark brown trim. I also know it was not maintained and within 15 years there was no trace of a cream color.
THE IRON BEAMS
Samuel Reeves patented the Phoenix Column in 1862. Although not widely used until the 1880’s it represented a significant advance in engineering design. Unlike cast iron columns, it was made up of rolled wrought-iron segments riveted through flanges, enabling taller, heavier stronger structures with the ability to withstand vibration and buckling. It was produced at the Phoenix Iron Works, and extensively used by the Phoenix Bridge Company.
The above photo shows a cross section of a beam on display at our museum as well as the name stamp that appears on every beam. In the lower left is a recent photo of a bridge that is made from these famous beams and one can go see it from the parking lot of the Schuylkill River Heritage Center at number 2 Main Street in Phoenixville. I took this photo from my car. The other blueprint drawing was used in the original proposal.
It is interesting to note that back when the old bridge was dismantled in 1922, a family from 115 Bridge Street, known as the Paper Mill Manson, came down to the river banks and asked if they could have some of the beams They were told to take some. I can tell you from my own experience that these beams are extremely heavy. They managed to move enough of them up the hill to use in building a front porch. Those beams held up their porch until the early 1970s before they were scrapped out and placed along the curb in front of the house. These beams were used in the bridge for 38 years, then for almost 50 years in a porch, but their story does not end here.
A new life for the beams began as local historian Lawrence Shaner drove by and saw the beams along the road and got out of his car and asked the owners if he could have them. I doubt at that time if anyone knew their significance or, for that matter, was up to the challenge of moving them. Lawrence took them and stored them at his home and in 1988 had them relocated to our new museum at the Royersford train station. That was short lived as we had to move to a temporary location and we were forced to rent a storage space until we acquired our current museum property in 2000. The columns were moved to our garage in Royersford. A few months later we began restoration to the barn building and discovered we needed iron upright beams to hold up the new cross beams used to reinforce the second floor. Someone asked the contractor to go look at them and today those beams are in our Gallery room holding up the second floor and have now logged another 20 years of service with us. I might also add that they are painted cream color which was the original color when they were first installed in 1884.
THE FOURTH BRIDGE
Bridge number four is our current concrete structure. The cement bridge replaced the old iron bridge and was opened to the public in 1922. It is 346 feet long and has a total width of 43 feet with the actual road surface being 29 feet wide. The cement bridge has been repaired many times. In 1979 the old concrete structure received a facelift with the installation of new sidewalks, light standards and a mesh fence. As far as I know, this was mostly a cosmetic repair. It was closed officially for major repairs on August 9, 2005. The closing of the bridge had an impact on residents. The school bus routes for the beginning of the school year had to be revamped. Storeowners and businesses were hurt; people using the bridge on the way to work had to find alternate routes. This was not the case in 1922 when the contract for the new bridge was awarded. In a newspaper article, dated 4/21/1922, it stated that “The old river bridge was moved yesterday to act as a temporary bridge, what an eyesore.” The temporary span ran from beside the Royersford Spring Company to the entrance of River Park on Bridge Street in front of the existing bridge. The bid for the new cement river bridge was $84,500 and $15,892 for the Spring City canal bridge that was replaced during this same time period. Also, a part of the canal bridge project was the new paving with concrete of East Bridge Street from the canal to the river bridge at a cost of $6000.
Our current bridge, (bridge number four), is 98 years old. The average life span of such a structure is around 60 years. In 2005 the official TRIP report found that the average age of a cement bridge like we have is 58 years, but 75 percent of Pennsylvania’s bridges were 75 years old. By my calculations in two years we should have an official 100th birthday party to be held on the bridge.
I must end this blog with a story I was told many years ago when I went down to our first museum at the train station, (1989). A woman came in one Sunday and sat down next to me at the desk. She asked me if I knew that there was an iron bridge that once crossed the river here. I said, "Yes, the very first postcard I purchased of the local area was one that showed the bridge." She told me that when she was a little girl, she would sit on her grandma’s lap and listen to her stories. One day the story was about the big party that was held to celebrate the grand opening of the iron bridge. Grandma remembered there was a big band sitting on a bandstand right in the middle of the bridge. She danced the night away as people from both towns gathered to listen to the music and eat at one of the many concessions lining the sides. I don’t know why but that story stuck with me and I never forgot it. Many years later I came upon a small newspaper clipping that mentioned the hiring of a band to play at the opening of the “Permanent Bridge”. That told me that the story was real but the “permanent” was only for 38 years, so you can’t believe everything you read in the newspaper.
Whenever I cross the bridge now, I can hear a band playing music and people having a good time. I imagine all the people who have traveled across the Schuylkill before me and how they reached the other side. I hope you have enjoyed your crossing and this blog.
William C. Brunner