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The Upper Delaware's First Suspension Bridge

John Conway - Sullivan County Historian
Posted 6/11/21

John A. Roebling was born in Prussia on June 12, 1806. Educated as an engineer, but finding the political unrest in his home country stifling, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1831 with a small group …

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The Upper Delaware's First Suspension Bridge

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John A. Roebling was born in Prussia on June 12, 1806. Educated as an engineer, but finding the political unrest in his home country stifling, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1831 with a small group intent on establishing a community where technology could freely advance. They settled in western Pennsylvania, establishing the community of Saxonburg.

According to David R. Steinman and Sara Ruth Watson in their 1941 book, “Bridges and Their Builders,” it was in 1840 that Roebling wrote to suspension bridge designer Charles Ellet, Jr., to offer his help with the design of a bridge near Philadelphia.

“The study of suspension bridges formed for the last few years of my residence in Europe my favorite occupation ...” Roebling wrote. “Let but a single bridge of the kind be put up in Philadelphia, exhibiting all the beautiful forms of the system to full advantage, and it needs no prophecy to foretell the effect which the novel and useful features will produce upon the intelligent minds of the Americans.”

By 1844, Roebling was producing his own proprietary wire rope and building bridges himself. A few years later, he was awarded a contract to constrcut four suspension aqueducts for the D&H Canal, and was well on his way to becoming the most famous suspension bridge builder of his era.

Coincidentally, it was the D&H Canal that effectively created the community of Barryville shortly after it began operation in 1828. At that time a ferry boat linked Barryville and Shohola, PA on the opposite side of the Delaware, and that means of conveyance proved adequate in getting goods and people across the river until the Erie Railroad arrived in Shohola in 1849. By that time, Barryville had grown into a bustling center of commerce with a population of about 300, and the need for a bridge spanning the Delaware had become obvious.

In 1854, the Barryville and Shohola Bridge Company was formed, with Chauncey Thomas of Shohola as president, in order to construct a suspension bridge to connect the two communities.

”Mr. Thomas attempted to hire bridge expert John A. Roebling,” `Frank T. Dale writes in his 2003 book, “Bridges Over the Delaware River,” “but Roebling was busy on another span in Niagara, New York... and he could not take on the construction of the Shohola bridge. Roebling gave Thomas verbal instructions when he visited the Niagara work site, and followed this up with written instructions.”

Seven years after the successful opening of Roebling's Delaware Aqueduct on the canal, Thomas's span became the first suspension supported vehicular bridge over the river.

The ten-foot-wide, single-lane, single-span bridge, 495 feet in length, cost about $9,000 to construct. Built by inexperienced workmen, and without a center support to add stability, it was not a sound structure, and on July 2, 1859, a windstorm completely destroyed it, leaving only the abutments remaining.

The bridge was rebuilt, but continued to be problematic, requiring numerous repairs over the years. Finally, on January 1, 1865, a suspension cable snapped and the bridge collapsed, sending several mule-drawn wagons loaded with cargo into the icy waters of the Delaware. The wagon operators survived, but three mules perished and much of the freight was lost.

This time, the Barryville and Shohola Bridge Company was unable to come up with the money to rebuild the bridge, and soon went out of business altogether. Chauncey Thomas, long since replaced as the company's president, purchased the destroyed bridge at a Sheriff's auction, and set about to reconstruct it.

Thomas spent about $4,000 to build a new bridge, this time including a center pier, and that bridge served the two communities until it was replaced by a modern two-lane bridge just downriver in 1941, even surviving the Great Pumpkin Flood of October, 1903, and a subsequent major flood the following spring.

The abutments for the old suspension bridge remain, one of which is on River Road in Barryville. And at 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 12—John A. Roebling's birthday—a new historic marker will be unveiled at the site of the abutment by town of Highland co-historian Debra Conway—who, incidentally, shares the birthday with Roebling. The marker was procured by the non-profit history education group, The Delaware Company, of which Debra serves as Executive Director, with funding provided by The William G. Pomeroy Foundation, and installation by the town of Highland Highway Department.

There will be a brief ceremony and remarks at the unveiling, which is open to the public.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.

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