Photography by Jadrian Klinger
The Walnut Street Bridge has been a source of discussion for a large part of its 125-year existence. No one seems to know when it acquired the affectionate title of “Old Shaky,” but it may hark back to the days when trolley cars rattled across its metal spans between 1893 and 1936, allowing passengers to transit between the east and west shores of the Susquehanna River before it later became a walkway for pedestrians and bicyclists. Since 1996, it has been only a memory for those perambulators either on foot or pedaling between City Island and Wormleysburg.
The western span of the bridge today stands forlorn with a sizable gap where three of the bridge sections are gone, drawing one’s attention to it like a missing incisor in a hockey player’s smile. And, not only that, the effect is emphasized by a pair of enormous white plastic barriers, looking like milk jugs on steroids at either end of the breach. It is an absurd incongruity that spoils the elegance of one of the most important historic bridges in the United States.
The Walnut Street Bridge is significant because it is the longest known truss bridge remaining that employs the unique Phoenix columns designed and built by the Phoenixville Bridge Company of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. Originally it had 15 truss spans and an overall length of 2,820 feet with two segments: an east channel bridge consisting of four 175-foot spans and three 240-foot spans crossing from Harrisburg to City Island and a west channel bridge consisting of seven 175-foot spans crossing from City Island to Wormleysburg. It is the finest and largest surviving example of the standardized Phoenix wrought-iron truss bridges produced by the company from 1884 to 1923.
The superstructures of the Walnut Street Bridge were prefabricated at the company’s plant at Elizabethtown, Pa., shipped to the site and erected. The bridge reflects a technological advance in the expansion of transportation infrastructure in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1972, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is also recognized by the American Society of Civil Engineers as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, one of the highest honors bestowed upon a historic bridge in the United States.
Originally constructed as a reaction to a toll monopoly created by the fee for transiting the Camelback Bridge (replaced by the Market Street Bridge) downriver, the Walnut Street Bridge was constructed and operated under the ownership of the People’s Bridge Company as a toll bridge until it reverted to the control of the Pennsylvania Highway Department (now PennDOT)in 1954. It provided both automotive and trolley crossing of the Susquehanna until the structure was weakened during the flooding of Tropical Storm/Hurricane Agnes in 1972, after which it was restricted to pedestrian traffic. Surprisingly, evidence of the trolley system exists where the narrow-gauge rails are exposed through the asphalt on City Island between the east and west channel sections of the bridge. As a result of a massive snowfall and subsequent melting in 1996, the western channel lost three spans due to ice and debris in the river.
Following the January 20, 1996 disaster, PennDOT spent nearly $6 million to repair and restore the east channel section of the bridge between Harrisburg and City Island, as well as mitigating the damage to the west channel. A civic group rallied to form the Peoples Bridge Coalition with the intent of raising the $12 million or more that it would take to restore the west channel segment. By 2008, the Peoples Bridge Coalition had raised $1 million toward that goal.
Since 1996, a variety of engineering, transportation and economic development studies have been commissioned regarding the resolution to the problem of what to do with the west channel span of the Walnut Street Bridge, but virtually no action has been taken to restore the missing sections. In a 2010 study created by the Delta Development Group, Inc. of Mechanicsburg, Pa. for the Redevelopment Authority of Cumberland County, it was noted that, “Even with the importance of this structure and the attention given to it in these reports, the bridge suffers from lack of support. The bridge is owned by PennDOT, which lacks the funding to support its essential and vehicular bridge functions. The missing spans, while within the City of Harrisburg, are out of sight to city leaders (their vision blocked by City Island), and the restored eastern spans are seemingly sufficient to accommodate access to City Island.”
Wormleysburg ambitiously constructed a plaza at the western entrance to the Walnut Street Bridge, breaking ground in 2009, that includes an attractive brick approach to the bridge next to the Harrisburg Seaplane Base with fencing and landscaping to replace the blistered asphalt and overgrowth that existed there. It does not allow access to the bridge, but does allow a view of the white milk jugs marking the western end of the structure. Lobar Associates, Inc. of Dillsburg, Pa. constructed it at a cost of $212,000. As an indicator of how much the cost of things has risen in the past century, it is interesting to note that the entire cost of the Walnut Street Bridge in 1889 was $197,000. The cost of the plaza was funded through grants from both the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Cumberland County.
In 2011, it was announced that the Peoples Bridge Coalition was disbanding and that a new organization, the Walnut Street Bridge Society would be formed to advocate the restoration of the west channel spans. The proposed new group was expected to seek legal status as a formal nonprofit (the Peoples Bridge Coalition was an ad hoc committee with no legal nonprofit status, although they attracted a million dollars) with grants and financial support channeled directly to the organization. Apparently members of the Harrisburg Young Professionals (HYP) expressed interest in getting involved with the Walnut Street Bridge Society. However, Renee Custer, executive director of HYP says, “I do not have information on this effort, which must have been discussed prior to my hiring. At this time, HYP is not involved in this effort.”
Presently there are no plans by PennDOT to pursue replacement of the western spans of the Walnut Street Bridge. According to Greg Penny, community relations coordinator for PennDOT Engineering District 8, “After the eastern spans were repaired in 1996, a study was undertaken to look at options for the western spans. At the end of a public involvement period in 1998, the consensus was to rebuild the western spans with new/modern materials and methods but to keep the same appearance. Unfortunately, the price tag at the time was about $12 million. With the glaring unmet needs that we had (and continue to have) with our bridges, we couldn’t justify that kind of money on the western spans. There were many more compelling transportation needs and priorities that are more heavily traveled than restoring those spans as a pedestrian bridge.”
With the apparent loss of both public and government interest in completing the missing spans of the Walnut Street Bridge, the question remains: whither Old Shaky?
Perhaps it’s time to look for new and creative ways of generating funds to complete what has been lost. Apparently it is possible to obtain “surplus” bridges from PennDOT. These are state-owned historic bridges that cannot be repaired or rehabilitated within PennDOT’s Bridge Management System that are, cost-wise, insignificant. The costs associated with moving, rehabilitating and re-erecting them are considerable. And, generating the funds for acquiring and replacing the missing spans on “Old Shaky” may require some out-of-the-box thinking.