By Thomas A. Bergbauer, Retired Courier-Post Editor
In 1926 the Delaware River Bridge was a marvel to behold with a 1,750 foot center span. It was the longest suspension bridge in the world—holding that record for three straight years until it was beat out by Detroit's Ambassador Bridge.
Predictions from the bridge commission was that the span would be free of tolls for private automobiles by 1941. But due to a depression, refinancing and maintenance that happy prospect diminished with time.
Total cost of construction was more than $37 million.
For the past 75 years the bridge supported thousands of tons of roadway structure and moving traffic and unlocked a new world between New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Today it is known as the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. It was given the name of the famous Philadelphia printer, inventor and American Revolutionary in 1955.
The span opened on July 1, 1926 amid great fanfare after four and a half years of construction and the loss of 15 workers killed in the line of duty. Car tolls was 25 cents in each direction.
But the idea of a bridge spanning the Delaware was a dream long before 1921. More than a century before the “Camden-Philadelphia Bridge” was completed serious plans appeared from time to time for some sort of plan to bridge the Delaware.
As early as 1818, Edward Sharpe of Camden conceived a plan to build a bridge between Camden and an island that was located in the Delaware near the Philadelphia side and then ferry the commuters the rest of the way, according to a history of the span by Walter S. Andariese. The island, known as Windmill Island, was a popular bathing resort. The tree-lined island belonged to Pennsylvania and was almost a mile in length.
In 1851 a four-span suspension bridge was designed and publicized by John C. Trautwine and in 1870 Thomas Say Speakman of Camden had a plan for a “double draw” suspension bridge. Ideas were plentiful, but nothing developed. Only ferry service transported commuters between the two cities since Richard Arnold and William Cooper settled in Camden in 1681. The last ferry left Camden in March 1952.
With an increase in population and industry something had to be done and residents of New Jersey and Pennsylvania finally got to work planning a bridge in 1913. An increase in automobile and truck construction also was a contributing factor to the plans.
In 1919 both state legislatures passed uniform acts creating the Delaware River Bridge Joint Commission. Both states would each pay one half the construction costs, but land acquisition in each state would be that state's financial responsibility.
The dream of a span was about to become reality. Their first order of business was to name a chief engineer. On September 24, 1920 they named Ralph Modjeski of Chicago to that position. At the time he was considered one of the best and that was what the bridge commission needed to get the job done right. Modjeski spent most of his time directing operations on the job site. Working with him was Philadelphia architect Paul Cret, whose designs gave the bridge a timeless majesty and made it a regional landmark.
According to Andariese, construction started on January 6, 1922 after ceremonies in both Camden and Philadelphia that included a parade through the streets of both cities. Part in the gala parades was a flatbed truck carrying a large model of the future bridge. Officiating at the rites were New Jersey Gov. Edward I. Edwards and Camden Mayor Charles H. Ellis and Pennsylvania Gov. William C. Sproul and Philadelphia Mayor J. Hampton Moore.
Workers sunk the anchorage caissons and by Spring of 1923 tower construction was almost ready to begin. The anchorages weigh 200,000 tons each. The crews then installed the saddles to support cables and then completed the cable bents in July of 1924. The temporary footbridge construction on June 10, 1924 was celebrated with the linking of Philadelphia to Camden and visitors were granted passes to cross the footbridge until a number of pedestrians on the bridge began to hamper the workers progress. The suspended roadway was completed in May of 1925.
According to Andariese's history, when the center span “closed,” the main towers were bending 12 inches at their tops toward one another. The towers, he writes, were doing what they were expected to do,
With the “closing” of the span came another celebration. Workers threw their hats into the air and boat whistles sounded. Eight days later, history tells us, a group of commissioners and engineers made an official crossing in a “long narrow procession along one side of the uncompleted bridge.”
Halfway through the construction the question of tolls arose. According to Andariese and his bridge history, the toll question first started in 1924. Arguments over whether or not to charge for using the bridge became heated and almost shutdown construction Pennsylvania declared a legal obligation not to collect tolls and a New Jersey bond issue made clear New Jersey's mandate to collect tolls.
New Jersey remained steadfast and Pennsylvania passed an act declaring “that the use and enjoyment of said bridge shall remain forever free and open to the people and the traveling public.” New Jersey would take action for collecting its own tolls in Camden until construction costs were paid. But finally after many arguments and battles over the issue Pennsylvania lawmakers backed down and repealed their no-toll law in January 1926.
During the bridge's construction the risk of death became greater with each day. With more men than ever working on the span, and at great heights, accidents happened. George W. Haines of Collingswood, a carpenter at the Philadelphia anchorage became the first job-related death on May 20, 1924 when he was struck and killed by a plank. He was the first of 15 to lose their lives, among that number Howard Meyer, an East Camden resident and former World War I aviator.
The big day finally arrived on July 1, 1926. More than 25,000 people attended the opening day ceremonies. New Jersey Gov. A. Harry Moore and Pennsylvania Gov. Gifford Pinchot presided. After the ceremonies an estimated 100,000 people, including an 87-year-old Civil War veteran, walked across the bridge before it opened for vehicular traffic. On Monday July 5, President Calvin Coolidge arrived from the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition to dedicate the span.
In construction of the span, provision was made to carry high-speed rail transit across the bridge on the outside brackets but it was not until February 23, 1934 when work began on the rail transit. The line, costing $8.2 million, started operation on June 6, 1936 and was operated by the Philadelphia Transportation Company under a lease. The bridge commission received 2 and one half cents from each 10 cent fare. Trains at the time ran from 8th and Market streets in Philadelphia to the Broadway Station in Camden.
Walkways were also constructed on either side of the bridge for pedestrian traffic. Many residents from both cities used the walkways for pleasure and sometimes it was their only way to get to work in either Philadelphia or Camden. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the bridge commission took steps to guard against any emergency in the time of war. The commission ordered replacement steel to make repairs that may be necessary in the case of bombings or sabotage. They also stepped up police patrols on the bridge and shutdown the use of both walkways.
Beginning in 1942, the bridge participated in blackouts and air raid alerts. Bomb shelters were provided under the Philadelphia plaza and in the 6th Street pedestrian tunnel in Camden. Traffic was kept off the bridge during the alerts.
In 1951 the Pennsylvania and New Jersey legislatures passed bills that renamed the Delaware River Joint Commission to the Delaware River Port Authority. The new name became official on July 17, 1952.
The need to expand the high-speed line beyond Camden became more of a reality in the late 1950s and in 1960 plans began for a speed line link from center city Philadelphia to Lindenwold. Finally on June 11, 1964, construction began on the link and on Jan. 4, 1969 the first PATCO High-Speed Line trains started running between Camden, Philadelphia and Lindenwold.