Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

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Looking south from Penn Treaty Park (2007).

Benjamin Franklin Bridge, 1926
Vine Street across the Delaware River to Camden, New Jersey

© Helene Schenck & Michael Parrington, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

A bridge linking Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey was proposed as early as 1818.  This plan utilized Windmill Island, which was located midway between the two cities until 1891-97 when it was removed by the Federal Government to improve navigation. A further design for a suspension bridge was produced in 1831 by John C. Troutwine; and in 1868 yet another design for a "double draw" suspension bridge was proposed.  None of these proposals came to anything, and the first real move toward linking Philadelphia and Camden occurred in 1919 with the formation of the Delaware River Bridge Joint Commission. In 1920, a Board of Engineers was formed and Dr. Paul P. Cret was appointed as architect, assisted by Leon S. Moiseff, Engineer of Design, and Clement E. Chase, Assistant Engineer.

In 1921, an Act of the United States Congress authorizing the bridge was passed and the Board of Engineers produced an estimate for the construction cost of $28,871,000.  Work on the bridge commenced on January 6, 1922, and the bridge was formally opened to traffic on July 1, 1926, on schedule. When completed, the almost two-mile expanse was the longest suspension bridge in the world.

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The total length of the bridge is 9,570 feet, and the length of the main span is 1,750 feet. The towers soar 380 feet above the water level; clearance for shipping is 135 feet, and the deepest foundations extend 105 feet below high water. The total weight of the bridge is 720,000 tons. The main piers contain 59,000 cubic yards of masonry and concrete, and the anchorages 216,000 cubic yards.  Bethlehem Steel, American Bridge Company, and the Keystone State Construction Company were among the main contractors for the project.

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In its over 60-year history, the bridge has seen many changes to the Philadelphia and Camden skylines. The bridge itself was adapted in the late 1960s to carry the tracks of the PATCO high speed line, a commuter rail line running from 16th Street in Philadelphia to Lindenwold, New Jersey. The bridge was completely redecked in 1988, ensuring its survival for many years to come.

1  Delaware River Bridge Joint Commission, The Bridge over the Delaware River Connecting Philadelphia, PA and Camden, NJ.  Final Report of the Board of Engineers submitted June 1, 1927, by Ralph Modjeski, George S. Webster, and Laurence A. Ball.

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Update May 2007 (by Harry Kyriakodis):
Still standing. The Delaware River Port Authority celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge by closing the span to all but pedestrian traffic on July 1, 2001. Thousands of people, some in 1920s attire, crossed the bridge. Antique cars, trucks, and fire engines were displayed on the deck, and two of the original rail cars that ran in the 1930s were on display at mid-span on the southern tracks. Since then, the bridge has undergone an extensive repainting process involving bead-blasting off many coats of old paint to bare metal. Only the Philadelphia approach remains to be done, but this has been delayed for years due to a complicated political dispute between Pennsylvania and New Jersey involving the dredging of the Delaware River.

See also:
Jósef G
łomb, A Man Who Spanned Two Eras—The Story of Bridge Engineer Ralph Modjeski (Philadelphia Chapter of the Kosciusko Foundation, 2002), translated by Peter J. Obst.

James B. Abbott has produced marvelous interior and exterior photos of the Ben Franklin Bridge. Abbott's studio is in the shadow of the bridge, in the former Wilbur Chocolate factory.
Winged Victories in Bridge Plaza, 1998, Ilforchrome print, 20" x 24". © James B. Abbott
Anchorage Bridge Cable Bend, 2000, Ilforchrome, 20" x 24". © James B. Abbott
Untitled, Ben Franklin Bridge from Water and Race street, 2001, Iris print mounted on museum board, 31" x 38". © James B. Abbott