History of the Walnut Street Bridge: The People's Bridge of Harrisburg
Before the Walnut Street bridge was constructed in 1889, the main bridge across the Susquehanna River was the Camelback Bridge (currently known as the Market Street Bridge). At the time, the Camelback Bridge provided an easy crossing to City Island Park and to the city of Wormleysburg. But this did not come without a price. By 1888, it was clear that the Camelback Bridge had a toll monopoly. The citizens of the area were frustrated at the outrageous prices charged to use the bridge. The final straw that broke this camel's back was when a concerned citizen, E. Z. Wallower, got tired of paying the exorbitant fee to cross the Susquehanna. He rallied the public to end the monopoly and quickly initiated the design and construction of the new Walnut Street Bridge.
On March 25, 1889, the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was granted a bridge charter. On April 12, 1889 construction of the new Walnut Street Bridge began. It consisted of 15 spans that allowed crossing from Harrisburg in the east to City Park Island and then finally to Wormleysburg on the western bank of the river. The bridge opened to pedestrians on April 19, 1890. On April 25, 1890, it opened its two-lanes to vehicular traffic. At a final cost of about $197,000, the Walnut Street Bridge became an admirable competitor to the older Camelback Bridge. Below is a map showing the Walnut Street Bridge as it exists today.
In late June of 1972, Hurricane Agnes caused considerable damage to the Walnut Street Bridge. The hurricane dumped more than 15 inches of rain in the area and caused the Susquehanna to crest at 32.5 feet, more than 15 feet higher than normal flow levels. Damage to the Walnut Street Bridge and the surrounding cities of Wormleysburg and Harrisburg was estimated to be in the billions of dollars. Even though both the eastern and western spans of the bridge remained intact after the storm, enough damage was done to the bridge to force it to permanently close its gates to vehicular traffic. Repairs to the bridge took two years to complete. When is was reopened for pedestrians only, it quickly became the most popular bridge in Harrisburg. It currently carries more than one million people across it each year.
However, this new found glory for the bridge didn't last long. The bridge was severely damaged again on January 20, 1996 during a large Harrisburg blizzard. More than 2 feet of snow rested on the bridge deck. Just a few days later, an additional 3 feet of snow blanketed parts of the city. Then rather suddenly, the temperature rose into the upper 50’s causing the snow to melt. As the snow quickly melted, additional rain poured in from the sky. The entire bridge was weakened by the raging river and faced the possibility of total destruction. The force of the water caused two spans from the middle of the western half of the bridge to break completely off. The pieces were sent more than 100 yards downstream to collide with the Market Street Bridge (formerly the Camelback Bridge). Near the end of the flood, a third span collapsed into the river. During the cleanup, crews from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation removed the three fallen spans as well as the remaining unstable stone piers.
Shortly after the 1996 disaster, repairs to the bridge started again. This time the cost of repairs came in at about $4,949,000. The bridge engineers added additional reinforcing materials to the structure to prevent it from a future collapse. Workers added concrete to the stone piers and added additional support members to the trusses. They also replaced several old iron pieces with newer steel ones. By the end of 1996, repairs to the eastern spans of the bridge were completed; the western spans of the bridge remain closed to this day.
After it was announced that the western spans would not be repaired, the town’s mayor and its citizens formed the People’s Bridge Coalition to support the restoration and preservation of the bridge. The coalition currently sells plaques in an attempt to acquire the money to finish the necessary repairs. The eastern spans still continue to provide the citizens of Harrisburg a pleasant walkway to City Park Island.
Today, the Walnut Street Bridge is one of about nine bridges on the Susquehanna River. Although it doesn’t fully cross the river, it still is one of the longest and most popular pedestrian bridges in the country. Its still-intact eastern spans have been lined with lights and the steel frame has been painted a luscious blue color. The bridge is also listed in the National Registrar of Historic places and the American Society of Civil Engineer's Historic Bridge Journal. Today, it is the oldest surviving bridge (in near original condition) over the Susquehanna and is an important cultural icon for the people of Harrisburg.
References and Resources
Brown, David J. Bridges: Three Thousand Years of Defying Nature. St. Paul, MN: MBI Publishing Company, 2001.
B.W. Zimmerman & Associates. Harrisburg Walk: Walnut Street Bridge. 2005. <http://www.bwza.com/Harrisburg%20Walk.htm>.
Ex, Jimi. Bridges over the Susquehanna, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA: The Walnut Street Bridge. June 17, 2003. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A1051561>.
Jackson, Donald C. Great American Bridges and Dams. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons Inc, 1988.
Jansberg, Nicholas. Walnut Street Bridge. May 17, 2004. <http://en.structurae.de/structures/data/index.cfm?ID=s0001297>.
Shearer, Susan K. Pennsylvania at Risk 1996. 2011. <http://www.preservationpa.org/page.asp?id=47>.
The People's Bridge Coalition. The Walnut Street Bridge. 2011 <http://www.walnutstreetbridge.org/>.