Here’s a pop quiz to start off the article: When was the Revolutionary War in the United States? When did George Washington cross the Delaware River and in which New Jersey city did a pivotal battle take place? And lastly, which areas did Washington’s troops march through before that particular battle took place? The answers you’ll find in bold and cursive print.
In the past 15 years and even more so since the Minneapolis Bridge disaster of 2007, there has been an increase in tendency for politicians and local government agencies to make haste in replacing historic bridges, despite their historical significance and the pleas of the local people to restore it for future use. Many of these people either have little or no expertise in historic preservation policies that exist, let alone have insufficient knowledge in the environmental impacts that take place when replacing a historic bridge in contrast to restoring it. In worst case scenario, debates over the future of the historic bridge divide the communities up by taking sides on the issue. In some cases, (emergency) elections to replace candidates are carried out using the historic bridge as a political toy to ensure that either one side or the other has it their own way.
The Bear Tavern Bridge over Jacob’s Creek in Hopewell Township in western New Jersey represents the crassest example of how a place of historic interest can divide up a community, let alone state for various reasons, four of which are presented here in this article:
First fact: The debate involves not only the historic bridge, but also a natural area with high historical value. The bridge itself was built in 1882 by the King Bridge Company of Cleveland, Ohio, during the era of its founder, Zenas King. It is the oldest bridge built in Mercer County and one whose truss design differs from others that were built at that time. It features a Pratt half-hip through truss design. A half-hip means that the outermost panels (the end post and first vertical beam) are half as long as the remaining panels on the bridge, thus having a trapezoidal design with the end posts having a 60° angle instead of 45°. These were most common with pony truss bridges as they were used for short crossings. For a through truss bridge, it was seldom used, and the Bear Tavern is one of the last remaining bridges left in the country that has this design. The portal bracing of the bridge was one of the first built and would start a trend where Town lattice portals were phased out in favor of beam portals as well as those using alphabets, such as the famous A-frame portal found on truss bridges built between 1890 and 1930. The bridge was one of a handful of bridges that survived the onslaught of Hurricane Irene last summer, despite being closed to traffic since September 2009.
The natural surrounding is the site of the famous march led by George Washington, who together with General Knox and Lt. James Monroe, directed an army of 2,400 soldiers to the battle of Trenton on 26 December, 1776, five months after the Declaration of Independence of 4 July, 1776 and a year and a half after the war started in April 1775. The army crossed the Delaware River on the night of the 25-26 December, 1776, defeated the Hessian soldiers at Trenton before crossing the Delaware River after the battle. The army would eventually capture Trenton on 2 January, 1777 and went on to defeat the English troops at Princeton. The battle of Trenton was the turning point of the war, as the Americans won the war six years later on 3 September, 1783. There was a trail named after the famous battle known as Victory Trail but the section near Bear Tavern is the last natural trail left. Residents fear that a new bridge would be an eye sore to the natural area, which would be altered beyond recognition. Yet the pleas have fallen on deaf ears of county commissioners, who have wanted a new crossing and new alignment for a long time….
Second fact: According to the organization wanting to save the Bear Tavern Bridge and the natural portion of Victory Trail, the drive for a new bridge and alignment has been on the minds of Mercer County for 82 years! That means the first proposal for a new bridge was introduced in 1930, even though the bridge was 48 years old and still serviceable at that time. In the many years that the author has been busying himself with the topic of bridges (25 years to be exact), there never has been such a long debate over the future of a historic bridge. In fact the average amount of time needed to discuss the need for a new bridge, carry out the surveys needed and find alternatives to replacing the historic bridge targeted for replacement is approximately 5 years. While there has been no real reason why the drive for a new bridge has dragged on for such a long time, it is assumed that officials wanted to convert a T-intersection into one where the road curves to the bridge with a right side turn-off onto a street prior to entering the crossing. The Bear Tavern Bridge’s main handicap is its vertical clearance of approximately 12-13 feet, but the bridge is wide enough to accommodate two lanes of traffic, yet the county feels that a new bridge would bring more traffic and commerce to the Bear Tavern area, something the people of the area are against, and have been since 1930.
Third fact: A lot of political tactics and activities deemed illegal were carried out mostly by those favoring a new bridge as a way of swaying the public towards a new bridge. This includes the disregard of environmental impact surveys, which includes safely removing lead from the truss through sandblasting. There were reports of flakes of paint landing into Jacob’s Creek containing high amounts of lead and possibly arsenic. While the removal of paint was important for removing the truss span, it was not done in a safe manner with fears that chemicals would invade the ground water. But this was one of many incidences that occurred during the entire debate; especially in the five years prior to the bridge’s removal last year in October 2011. The debate sparked the drive for greed, lies and misinformation on the part of those wanting to replace the bridge, resulting in mistrust among the community. Elections in 2010 did not help the situation as the officials elected were running a choreographed line directed by the proponents of the new bridge. Furthermore, the county tried successfully to overrun the state’s recommendation of restoring the bridge instead of cooperating, resulting in the question of how much authority the county should have in comparison to the state. This includes ignoring the suggestions made by the state historical society to restore the bridge because of its conditions. In the last proposal to introduce the new crossing in July 2012, the state department of transportation stepped aside from the issue for unknown reasons.
Fourth fact: The question of what to do with the bridge still remains to be seen. News reports in October 2011 claim that the bridge will be refurbished and re-erected on site, yet the county recently has given the green light for a 200 foot concrete bridge on a new alignment and with a 60 foot retaining wall, which will forever alter the Victory Trail site beyond recognition. This puts the future of the bridge in doubt, for even though it sits in storage waiting to be restored and rebuilt, the question is whether it makes sense from this point on. And if it does make sense to restore it and rebuild it, where would the bridge be rebuilt? After all, its old place will be taken over by a hunk of concrete and its natural relationship with nature and history has been severed permanently. The bridge may have a new life elsewhere, but for many in the Bear Tavern area, it will always be associated with George Washington’s march on Trenton and how it changed the dynamics of the war for independence.
I would like to close this article with a comment made by one of the Bear Tavern residents, who favored the replacement of the bridge: “In five years, we will have forgotten about the whole thing.” We may have forgotten a lot of our own history we learned in high school, which is a cardinal sin in itself. It is a capital sin to forget about the history of our own backyard. For Bear Tavern Bridge, to forget the bridge would mean to be ignorant of the community’s own past, which eventually comes back with a vengeance many years from now, even if the truss bridge has a life elsewhere. But the crime that will leave scars on the face of history is how the region will be altered thanks to the people who spent 82 years to make it happen. These scars will remain for many generations to come and will be talked about in private circles and elsewhere.
More information about the Bear Tavern Bridge can be seen here, including contact information in case you have any questions or suggestions: http://www.facebook.com/groups/146045364632/ Photos of the bridge taken by many members of the Bear Tavern Bridge group can be seen here.