My first entry of in the Chronicles takes me to northwestern Pennsylvania and this remote location in the corner of Meadville, located along Mead Avenue over French Creek. If one takes a look at the bridge on the outside, the first impression of the structure is that it is one of a kind that you will never see elsewhere. The bridge is actually two bridges built into one. The inner portion of the bridge was constructed by the Penn Bridge Works Company of New Brighton in 1871 and consists of two spans of a Whipple design (see figure 1) all built using wrought iron. Its end posts are vertical and consist of balustrades on each end and have Phoenix columns, meaning they are shaped in a somewhat octagonal shape. The portal bracings- the entrance into the bridge- are unique as they presented a series of geometrical shapes in the form of circles and stars that stretch out to the middle. While they are still intact for the sidewalk portion of the bridge which is even more fascinating, only a section of the original portal bracing remains after years of abuse by tall vehicles trying to cross it and/or vandals who wanted a piece of the bridge and disregard its value. The Whipple truss was encased with an additional truss in 1912, consisting of a Baltimore petit truss design built by Rodgers Brothers Company in Albion. The bridge served traffic until inspection reports revealed some structural damage resulting in its closure in March, 2007. The structure has been sitting idle ever since then, with its future in doubt. However, given its unique structural design and its history, there is an underlying story behind this bridge which starts right here:
When driving to the bridge for the first time, the first impression I had was its desolate location. It was located along Mead Avenue, which was supposed to be the main artery going through the business district of the city. But it was very ironic given the fact that there were only a couple businesses and if there were some when it was open, they opted to move elsewhere when bridge was closed. To me, it was not necessary to replace the bridge, as a neighboring bridge, the Mercer Street Bridge was located not more than a quarter of a mile from this spot, if even that. Furthermore, there was an adjacent park with a refurbished log cabin which together with the bridge would make an excellent historic district for people to learn a bit of history of the city, which to my knowledge is home to one person, actress Sharon Stone, a figure I’ll get to shortly.
But crossing the structure for the first time, I could see the neglect that scars the bridge. It has nothing to do with the rust on the truss parts, the railings that were dented or ripped off, and parts of the sidewalk were removed. It has more to do with its lack of identity to the city and its inhabitants. The bridge has been a focus of countless debates on its future as despite attempts by preservationists and other parties interested in saving the bridge or at least part of it, the community would like to see the bridge go at any cost. It is a hindrance to the progress to the city and the closure is hurting businesses already hit by the economic crisis, they claim. The desperation of the community is getting stronger by the week. This is noticeable by the offer from a construction company in Pittsburgh to replace the bridge in 4 months at a cost of just $1.5 million! And this brings me back to Sharon Stone.
We all know Sharon Stone from the films Basic Instinct 1 & 2, where the Meadville native played the author Catherine Tramell, who seduces first a police officer and later a psychologist to bed and sends their lives into Dante’s Inferno, both literally and professionally. But one must not forget the fact that these two characters belonged to a list of people whom the bisexual perpetrator lured them to her web through lies and deception, and eventually murder. Now what does Sharon Stone have to do with this bridge? One answer and one answer only: desperation!
Looking at our culture, when something goes wrong and it affects our way of life, we try desperately to eliminate the factors interfering with our way of life as quickly and cheaply as possible so that we continue on as is. It is a form of short-term thinking combined with opportunism that has been taking its toll on our society today. We do not take care of our precious belongings, so we replace them with something better without thinking long term. This applies especially to our bridges, which had been ignored until the I-35W Bridge disaster in Minneapolis in August 2007. Again, even though we address the issues on our deficient bridges, we still make the same mistake by building bridges as quickly as possible and as cheap as possible, but at the same time, not do what we should have been doing in the first place: maintaining them so that they last longer. It’s the basic instinct that we face. Whenever there is an opportunity to get rid of the old in place of the new at the quickest and cheapest possible way, we jump to it, realizing that this piece of old has historic value that we might want to keep at least part of it. We’re desperate for something new and that’s why we have this basic instinct of doing what we do.
This takes me back to the Mead Avenue Bridge and its disconnection with the people of Meadville. It is more than obvious that the community wants to get rid of the bridge. And it is sad too, as many communities with historic bridges have converted them to pedestrian traffic- including those in historic districts. The city of Lanesboro in Minnesota and its beloved Coffee Street Bridge-located right next to the business district- is a fine example of how the community came together to save the 1895 structure. This was done in 2002 and the nearest bridge open to vehicular traffic was just as far away as the distance between the Mead Avenue Bridge and the nearest crossing at Mercer Street. It is understandable that action will need to be taken, even though through better planning, the city’s business district would be better off even with the bridge closed or converted to pedestrian traffic. The problem is through the basic instinct of trying to revive the business district through replacing the bridge, they are destroying a piece of American history and with that another icon that would have once served this quiet town. Then it boils down to the question of what Meadville has to offer. It has no birthplace site nor a statue of Sharon Stone. It has a Sheetz convenience store, where I ate before heading off to visit another historic bridge. And it has PennDOT’s own version of the Garden of Eden- flowers and other artwork made from old road signs! Nice work, but my instinct says “You gotta do better than that!”
I wonder if Sharon Stone was to ever visit Meadville again if she would recognize it as before; let alone how she would react to the Mead Avenue Bridge’s demise- assuming she has memories of it…
The next bridge in the Chronicles is the Venango Veterans Memorial Bridge, also in Pennsylvania and with that some facts about Pennsylvania and its bridges that are worth reading about.
Note: Action is being carried out to salvage all or what is left of the Mead Avenue Bridge. After rejecting the proposal to reuse part of the bridge by the Meadville City Council, pontists are working together to find a new place for the bridge. A link on the proposals is enclosed below. Should you be interested in supporting the effort or if you want to purchase the bridge for recreational purposes, the contact details are enclosed after the link.
Link on the rescue attempts: http://www.historicbridges.org/truss/mead/save.htm
Historic Bridge Foundation: firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Holth of Historic Bridges.Org: Nathan@historicbridges.org
Vern Mesler: email@example.com
You can also contact the author of this work for any questions or suggestions regarding the bridge.
The address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for your help and let’s hope there is a new home for a rarity representing the richness of American history.
The diagram of the 1871 Whipple truss design
More photos by the author are available via flickr, which you can access here.