The Bridges We Build - A Journey Across the Delaware
By Rebecca Price Janney, Apr 5 2017 01:32PM
Are there any bridges of special interest to you or for which you have a certain affection? I recently showed a close friend around Easton, and when I pointed out some houses rimming the Delaware River on the other side, she gasped. “I had no idea Easton and Phillipsburg were so close!” she said. Indeed, when I was growing up there, the bridges connecting the two towns were more like streets running through the middle. If I had a dollar for every time I crossed one of the two bridges, you’d see me dancing around like someone who’s just had balloons and a mammoth check brought to her house by perfect strangers while a camera is rolling.
In Easton at the Forks, I wrote from this perspective while painting a picture of Erin Miles’s relationship to the bridges. Today I’d like to tell you more about them.
Aside from the railroad bridges spanning the Delaware at the forks, there are two for the conveyance of vehicles and pedestrians. (There also is a Route 78 bridge downriver, but being newer and not a whit romantic or historic, I’m leaving it out of the present discussion.) The oldest, and to me the most graceful, of the two is the Northampton Street Bridge, which locals often call “The Free Bridge” for obvious reasons. This is the second span to link Easton and Phillipsburg there, replacing a wooden, covered bridge which served the people for most of the 19th century (1806-1896). From 1739-1806 a ferry had taken passengers and horses from one bank to another. Although the covered bridge withstood the slings and arrows of stormy weather and floods, the revolution in transportation rendered the structure obsolete.
In 1896 a Lafayette alumnus and professor, James Madison Porter III, designed a modern bridge to replace its antecedent. Its delicate, almost lacey, appearance belies its durability, but as the machine age progressed, the Northampton Street Bridge faced the dilemma of its predecessor—larger trucks and buses needing to cross the Delaware were just too heavy for constant use, in addition to an influx of new automobiles in the 1920s and 30s. Instead of simply replacing the bridge to keep up with the times, however, a new one was built just upriver to the north, a bridge that would carry newly minted U.S. Route 22 across the water. The Easton-Phillipsburg Toll Bridge was opened on January 14, 1938, but locals whose lives stretch back a few decades still tend to call it “The New Bridge.”
I took my early memories of these bridges and transferred them to Erin in my novel. Like me, she grew up hearing stories about the great flood of 1955, the one brought about by Hurricane Diane (actually, a previous hurricane had blown through the area a week earlier). So vivid were her relatives’ recollections of what happened next, Erin felt as if she’d lived through the event herself. In August 1955, “Diane” caused the Delaware to rise 44 feet above its normal levels, and on the 19th, they cascaded over the top of the Free Bridge. The stalwart structure held firm, however, that is until the remains of the shattered Portland-Columbia covered bridge smashed into it, tearing away the center portion, leaving the sides sagging like too-big trousers with suspenders hanging down.
In order to accommodate traffic, tolls were lowered on the New Bridge from 10 to five cents for the next two years, and two, temporary, Bailey bridges flanked the Free Bridge as it was repaired. My mother used to tell me stories about using those “pontoon bridges,” as she referred to them, and how scary she found them to be since they didn’t have “sides” like a regular bridge.
I’m including a photo of an ornament I was given of the Free Bridge for Christmas last year. Please tell me any bridge stories you may have to share!