Saturday, May 21, 2016

Steel, Concrete, and Politics: A History of the Mead Avenue Bridge

The architectural beauty of the Mead Avenue Bridge in modern times
The Mead Avenue Bridge, as many can recall, has through the years, been a stalwart fixture within the Meadville Community. The bridge not only spanned French Creek but also generations, linking Meadville with Fredricksburg since its original construction in 1871. With the reinforcements made in 1912 the bridge carried the unique distinction of being essentially two bridges in one in the eyes of architecture historians.


The Dock Street bridge (Dock St side) and the 1869 flood
The Mead Avenue Bridge was actually built on the site of the city’s second covered bridge (the first being the Kennedy Bridge near Mercer Street) in 1828 at the foot of Dock Street (Mead Avenue). As Meadville’s economic importance grew, so too did the number of bridges needed to accommodate the transport of goods in and out of the city. When French Creek flooded in 1869, though, many of these bridges weren’t built to withstand such a torrent force, and they were swept away. The Dock Street bridge escaped such a fate. Even so, the structure was still in bad enough shape to warrant attention. Complaints about thieves using the bridge's darkness to prey on victims combined with a strong civil movement calling for area beautification dictated the bridge’s ultimate demise.

The Whipple Truss Bridge 

The new bridge’s design relied on the truss structure of the 1870’s known as the Whipple Through Truss configuration developed by Squire Whipple. The Whipple truss bridge was built by the Penn Bridge Works of Beaver Falls, who obtained the iron from the Union Iron Mills (an early venture of Andrew Carnegie). The use of iron, though, did not negate the attention given to Victorian flourishes that adorned the bridge’s columns and arches.

Mead Avenue Bridge Plan (See the full set here)
Construction commenced in November of 1871, and fall rains made work difficult. In the swift running waters, a pontoon broke loose and knocked part of the incomplete bridge into French Creek on November 11th, causing delay in work. The ringing of metal being knocked into place resumed once the wayward part was recovered, and by November 27th the first span was in place. Even so, the bridge was still not passable until December 29th and not fully painted and considered complete until January 18 of 1872. At its largest span to the single pier, the Mead Avenue Bridge stretched 128.9, with an overall length of 264.1 feet, a deck width of 19.4 feet and 8.2 feet of vertical clearance.

Adding to the Mead Avenue Bridge’s eventual rarity was its use of Keystone columns for vertical members and end posts to support the Whipple trusses in a two-truss span configuration. Bridges with Keystone columns were often associated with Andrew Carnegie's Keystone Bridge Company who sold them to the Penn Bridge Works for the Mead Avenue’s construction. The hallmark of a Keystone Column was the steel column's four bent channels riveted together with thimbles covering the rivets in separate channels. Time and deterioration have dictated the replacement of the such bridges from this period, thus dwindling the number built with Keystone Columns to near extinction.


The Trolley Problem

In 1907 the bridge began carrying trolley traffic but was deemed insufficiently strong to handle the weight of this new mode of transportation. Wooden supports were added in the spaces on either side of the lone pier, so the trolleys could use the Mead Avenue Bridge as a route to Harmonsburg, Exposition Park, and Linesville. In the winter, however, the supports had to be removed before winter in order to prevent ice jams from forming under the bridge. This created an inconvenience for passengers who had to leave one trolley, cross the bridge, and then board another trolley in the winter months.

Bird's eye view of the Mead Avenue Bridge in 1890's
Officials recognized the need to replace the original 1871 bridge with a sturdier version. In 1905 the French Creek Improvement Committee had been formed with John Dick as its chairman. Members included prominent local businessmen along with the county engineer and engineers from the Bessemer and Erie Railroads. Given the trolley situation, the committee had the bridge declared condemned by the court in 1907 and approached the Meadville and Conneaut Lake Traction Company with a proposition to provide 40% of the funds needed to build a new single span bridge, but the company was not in a place financially to accept the proposal, and the bridge continued to function as before.

By 1911, the Meadville and Conneaut Lake had reformed as Northwestern Pennsylvania Traction Company. Tired with the hassle of replacing wooden supports and the inefficiency of transferring passengers at the Mead Avenue Bridge, the company approached Dick, requesting that he exert some influence on the Crawford County Commissioners in planning for a new bridge. A single-span, steel structure bridge was drawn up, and the estimated cost of was determined to be between $30,000 and $40,000. This was then presented to the County Commissioners who approved of the idea under the stipulation that the traction company would have to provide $10,000 of the cost as well as be responsible for the ongoing repairs and upkeep.

Dick took this to the traction company who accepted the terms without issue. Because floods had created problems for the new bridge in Cambridge Springs, the Commissioners had also dictated that the grade to the newly planned bridge be elevated by 24 inches, a requirement Dick addressed by negotiating for the city of Meadville to cover the expense.

A Sudden Change in Position 

With everything in order Dick returned to the County Commissioners to inform them that all their terms had been met and the new bridge could move forward. To Dick’s shock, the Commissioners claimed they had never discussed any such terms. Dick’s arguments to the contrary went nowhere with either of the two Republican commissioners, W.P. Benner of Saegertown and Whitney Braymer of Blooming Valley or the lone Democrat, M.G. Beatty of Meadville.

The west side of the Mead Avenue Bridge shortly after its opening
When Dick returned a second time to petition the Commissioners, only Benner was present to meet with him. Benner continued to claim the bridge’s terms had not been discussed. When Dick explained that the traction company was willing to front their part of the cost, Benner made a revealing comment about the $10,000 payment being a good idea on the part of the Commissioners. At this Dick knew something was afoot, and this notion was confirmed when Benner stated that he preferred a concrete bridge with two piers rather than the proposed steel structure.

Benner, along with the other commissioners had recently returned from an Ohio trip to view a newly constructed concrete bridge in Toledo. Concrete was considered to be a stronger, more permanent solution, one believed to require virtually no maintenance. The Commissioners had already been given cost estimates for a concrete bridge at Mead Avenue calculated to be $21,500, well below that of steel. In light of these considerations, it only made sense for the commissioners to opt for a concrete solution. When this plan was submitted to the NWPA Traction Company, the savings in long term maintenance and upkeep made agreeing to pay for at least half of the work an easy decision.

A confused Dick reported the situation to the Meadville Chamber of Commerce in June who promptly organized a delegation of prominent businessmen to appeal to the sensibilities of the Commissioners. The appeal failed to persuade the Commissioners or the Traction Company who were both intent, albeit for different reasons, on having a concrete bridge. Dick later wrote that the Commissioners “showed no disposition to consider the best wishes of the business interests of Meadville even though the city pays one sixth of the county’s taxes.”

A Court Victory?

Shortly thereafter, Dick was contacted by Daniel B. Luten, an engineer in Indianapolis who specialized in the construction of concrete bridges. Luten explained that he had been contacted by the Commissioners to provide the initial cost estimate and that the two should discuss his proposed plan for the Mead Avenue Bridge. Dick agreed, and a meeting was set at the Lafayette Hotel in Meadville.

As soon as Luten spread his plans across the table, Dick had concerns chiefly with the two concrete piers. These piers would require a great deal of additional work to clear obstructions in French Creek for their foundations. Dick had earlier confirmed the need for such work during the bridge’s original planning phase after an inspection by members of the Improvement Committee, a surveyor, and Colonel Siebert, the Army’s chief engineer responsible for building bridges and harbor structures in Pittsburgh.

Luten, a notable engineer, balked at this contention. When Dick further cited the eddies created by the supports under the nearby Race Street bridge, the Bessemer bridge near Mercer Street, and the railroad bridge at Buchanan Junction, Lute again downplayed the concern. “Never heard of this,” he said dismissively.

The Mead Avenue Bridge's full span with single pier
Upon learning of these plans, the Chamber of Commerce again mobilized, this time circulating a petition among local businesses which quickly gathered 1,300 signatures including that of the County Commissioner’s clerk. In turn, the Commissioners called into question Dick’s motives against a concrete bridge, insinuating that the partial owner of the Phoenix Iron Works stood to make a considerable profit were the bridge to use steel. Dick’s anger at this point was palpable in a letter to the Titusville Herald where he called such an accusation absurd given the Phoenix Iron Works produced boilers and had no experience in bridges.

The motivations of the city for demanding a single-span steel bridge were rooted in safety and aesthetics. The existence of concrete piers would create the very problem of ice gorges that required the makeshift struts to be removed each fall. Furthermore, steel in that period was viewed to be a more prestigious material than concrete, and the city, led by the Chamber of Commerce wanted to maintain that elevated level of d├ęcor as a sign of Meadville’s status. For those in this camp there would be no compromise even when the Commissioners offered to reduce the number of piers. Such stubbornness lead one of the commissioners to resolve aloud that, “He proposed to show whether the commissioners or a few people in Meadville ran the county.”

The fight would eventually be brought to the courts in July where the county’s civil engineers and engineers from the Erie Railroad outlined the disastrous flooding that the concrete piers would create. The Erie Railroad’s involvement in the matter should not be considered altruistic. Because the NWPA Traction Company was considered a competitor of sorts, the concrete bridge would allow the trolleys to carry greater amounts of light freight across the county. The steel solution, although stronger, would still limit the weight trolleys could carry, a circumstance that was in the Erie Railroad’s best interests.

To counter the Chamber of Commerce, the defense called Luten, relying on his experience as a bridge builder. Naturally, Luten dispelled the notion of disastrous flooding, but his testimony took an interesting turn when it was discovered he stood to earn a 10% commission on the bridge’s construction because it would utilize his patents for reinforced concrete. It was learned later that Luten had also conveniently neglected to include the cost required to prepare the substructure for the concrete piers in his original, bid estimates to the Commissioners.

Even so, the court ruled in the County Commissioner’s favor under the premise that the Chamber could not demonstrate their concerns for safety. The injunction preventing the bridge’s concrete construction would be lifted so the project could move forward.

The Commissioner’s victory, however, lasted for less than 24 hours. A front-page headline on the next day’s edition of the Meadville-Tribune Republican all but killed the new bridge. A concrete bridge near Jamestown, New York was cracking. The article reported, "This bridge was erected over the Chautauqua Lake outlet and has piers in the stream. Erie railroad men who have seen it say it is very much like the bridge that it is proposed to build in Mead Avenue, and that it was used only a very short time before it had to be closed."


A "Temporary" Fix

Mead Ave. Bridge with Trolley tracks and Baltimore trusses added
With concrete out, the Chamber and other business leaders sought to delay construction of the bridge at least long enough to vote out Benner, Beatty, and Braymer. The Commissioners were criticized endlessly for their original economic arguments supporting a concrete bridge and for failing to realize Luten had underbid the project for his own gain. The situation would only worsen for the Commissioners. A little over a month after the court ruling, Meadville flooded at the hands of mill run while a short distance away, French Creek managed to contain the high waters flowing unobstructed under the Mead Avenue Bridge.

Although still in use, the Mead Avenue, was in a dire state as were the Commissioners who now had $50,000 in flood damages to contend with. Their credibility already on the line, and eager to save money, the Commissioners finally adopted an option proposed by Dick. "So far as economy is concerned," Dick reported, "I have been informed that the present bridge, for the expenditure of a few thousand dollars, could be strengthened so that it would carry the load of the Traction Company."

This approach, it was believed, would suffice in keeping the bridge in working order temporarily for at least ten years. Still, the Commissioners were quick to adopt Dick’s suggestion as an easy way to remedy the bridge repairs, save money, use only one pier, and complete construction by winter. On December 20th the Rodgers Brothers of Albion, Pennsylvania were awarded the bid to make repairs to the bridge. The workers used the Baltimore truss system which they simply built around the existing Whipple trusses. (Two bridges in one!) Work was completed in a mere five weeks at a total cost of $3,000 split between the traction company and county.

Aside from some work in the 1930’s, this “temporary” fix remained for over 103 years.

The historical significance of the Mead Avenue Bridge’s design and architecture made it too important to sell for scrap. Thankfully, upon its dismantling, the bridge was sold to a collector in New Jersey who owns several other historical bridges. The idea that the temporary improvements made in 1912 allowed the bridge to remain in service for so long is both incredible and ironic. Today, though, it seems the issue has come full circle and the County Commissioners of 1912 finally have their concrete bridge.


Sources

Dick, John. “Prominent Meadville Man Explains Matter: Mead Avenue Bridge Discussed” Titusville Herald, 12 August 1911.

Glossary of Bridge Terms, Lichtenberger Engineering Library, University of Iowa

Historic Engineering Record, Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service. Department of the Interior, Washington DC, 1999.

"Engineer Luten a Good Witness Though Admitting a Personal Interest in Concrete Bridge," Meadville Tribune-Republican, 13 July 1911.

"Jamestown's Trouble with Concrete Bridge," Meadville Tribune-Republican, 26 July 1911.


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About the Author

Ron Mattocks was born and raised in Guys Mills, Pennsylvania. Following high school he joined the Army to see the world (which he did) before a career as an executive with a national home builder in Texas. Eventually Ron switched to Internet marketing, consulting for companies such as GMC, ConAgra, Mattel, and others. During this time he also published the book, Sugar Milk: What One Dad Drinks When He Can't Afford Vodka and began writing regularly for the Huffington Post, Disney's Babble, and the TODAY Show. On a summer visit to Conneaut Lake Park, Ron became suddenly fascinated with the park's origins, a fascination that lead to his current book project, and later would evolve into a passion for the county's extensive history. Today Ron is the Director of Digital Marketing Services with at Aptera Inc., in Indiana where he lives with his three sons. He graduated from St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas with a degree in English Literature, and is a member of both the Crawford County and Conneaut Lake Area Historical Societies.


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