An Historic View of The A. and P. Roberts Pencoyd Iron Works

This is my unedited version of the story I wrote for Hidden City Philadelphia, which was published on January 11, 2017.  The Pencoyd Iron Works was located on a strip of land adjoining the Schuylkill River across from the Manayunk neighborhood of Philadelphia, and closed at the end of 1943.

Pencoyd Iron Works

Panoramic View of the Pencoyd Iron Works c1900 | Credit: LMHS

Manayunk’s iconic concrete rail bridge enjoyed its first full season as a pedestrian crossing in 2016, as the Cynwyd Heritage Trail proves to be a popular cycling and strolling destination.  Equally exciting, last year brought another, less known Schuylkill rail bridge back into use; visitors to Manayunk’s Main Street may have noticed the one lane newly-painted light green bridge crossing the river near the junction of Ridge Avenue.  Encased in weeds and left forgotten for years, this 117 year old double-span Parker truss bridge was built by the namesake Pencoyd Iron works to connect their factory directly with customers across the river.  The span is now granted public access as part of the new Pencoyd Trail.

Pencoyd Bridge, Manayunk Philadelphia

The Pencoyd Bridge in 2017 | Credit: Mick Ricereto

The Pencoyd Bridge was restored by today’s owners of the riverfront in Lower Merion, Penn Real Estate, as part of the new Pencoyd Trail which traverses their property.  This curious piece of land wedged between I-76 and the railroad right-of-way, a mostly-forgotten industrial remediation site, is presently under development for an apartment community.  The history of this land – an ancient summer fishing ground for the Lenni Lenape – was once known as the village of Pencoyd (pronounced like “Pencode”), site of an rope ferry crossing and the world renowned Pencoyd Iron Works.  Considering the present development, there is still time to see some history on the site including a 130+ year old surviving brick structure which the owners claim could be a Furness design.  Let’s travel up river and back in time to the year of Penn’s original land grant and subsequent division of this history-rich area.

The Welsh Tract

In November of 1683 the Quaker John Roberts sailed the Morning Star from England to Philadelphia to claim his acreage derived from the famed Welsh Tract, a subdivision sold to a pair of Welsh Quakers directly from William Penn earlier of that year.  The Tract – originally thought by the assembled investors to be a contiguous piece of land – was spread about hills west of the Schuylkill from today’s Merion and all about Montgomery, Chester and Delaware counties.

Skull & Heap Map of 1753

Skull & Heap Map of 1753 showing Lower Merion Township; Roberts Estate at Middle Right | Credit: Free Library of Phila.

 

John Roberts’ section adjoined that of a fellow ocean traveler, a Miss Gaynor Roberts (no relation; Roberts being a very common name in Wales).  Miss Roberts’ father had signed an agreement for land but passed away before disembarking the old country to receive his purchase. Gaynor was destined to be John’s future wife.  Was the romance kindled on the Morning Star herself?  Coincidence or not, this precipitous coupling netted the future family a total of 180 acres, spreading from today’s City Line Avenue through to Conshohocken State Road along the river.  The next spring the Roberts were the first to be married in the new Merion Meeting (the oldest Quaker meeting house in the United States and still extant a few miles up on Montgomery Road), and quickly went about creating a farm, starting a family and building their home.  The estate was named Pencoid, meaning “head of the woods” in their native language.  The family home was demolished in 1964, making way for today’s Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Presidential Blvd. and the sprawl of City Line Avenue.

Levering Map of 1851 Showing Pencoyd

1851 Levering Map Showing Pencoyd and 6th Generation Algernon Robert’s Separate Parcel Just Prior to Establishment of Iron Works | Credit: Free Library of Phila

In summers, the Lenape fished for shad along the Schuylkill shores between the falls near today’s namesake Falls Bridge and up to Flat Rock, a natural crossing near the top of Manayunk.  At some point River Road was built along the shore, as the new settlers established shad fisheries in this area throughout the 18th century.  At the northern edge of the estate a gentleman by the name of Peter Righter established a rope ferry crossing in 1741; this road and landing was located exactly where the Pencoyd bridge crosses to Manayunk today.  For the remainder of the 18th century all would be genteel and quiet in Lower Merion.

Jumping ahead 80 years of bucolic colonial life, fifth generation Isaac Warner Roberts continued farming the land into the early 19th century, supplying dairy and beef to America’s premier metropolis downriver.  However industrial and social progress was fast approaching the secluded farmland.  The first industrial intrusion was the 1820’s towpath for the Schuylkill Navigation Company.

Anthracite: Pennsylvania’s Gold

In 1808 an East Falls industrialist named Josiah White discovered how to burn anthracite coal, a mineral which lay rich in the upper Schuylkill mountains past Reading.  This breakthrough sparked immediate efforts to extract and transport this potentially inexpensive domestic and industrial fuel downriver from Pottsville to Philadelphia and her ports. The Schuylkill Navigation Company, builder of canals for shipping as well as railroads, quickly went about securing property and water rights alongside both shores of the river the 90 miles needed to reach tidewater in the city.  Although the Manayunk section of the canal (called a “reach”) extends exactly opposite this site, the navigation also included 46 miles of slack water areas known as “levels”.  The Roberts’ side was a level likely used to return boats back upriver when empty and easier to maneuver on natural waters; the label of Tow Path can be seen on the site’s Hexamer survey of 1883 (see below).

1907 View of Manayunk, Philadelphia

1907 View of Philadelphia’s Manayunk Neighborhood with the Pencoyd Iron Works and Laurel Hill West in the Foreground | Credit: LOC

 

The Navigation thrived for many decades but the railroad proved to be the more efficient method for coal and freight and indeed, the economic engine which fueled 19th century industrial growth.  The Philadelphia & Reading Railroad acquired rights all the way up the river and finished the final section of it’s anthracite coal line in 1839.  Although not much is known of the nature of the transaction, this right-of-way cut the Roberts’ property from the waterfront as the viaduct ran alongside the Schuylkill on it’s way to the black gold in Pottsville.  A double arch provided access from the upper property to the shoreline of the Schuylkill, the road still known today as Righters Ferry Road.

Righter's Ferry Road Viaduct

Reading Railroad’s Twin Arch over Righter’s Ferry Road – Original Stonework Dating to the 1830’s.  I-76 Visible Immediately Behind | Credit: Mick Ricereto

 

Cousins in Iron

Isaac Warner Roberts’ 9th son Algernon, not wishing to take over the farm, went to Rensselaer to learn the iron business with the intention of using some of his father’s property for a foundry.  Investing $5000 of family money ($144,000 in 2015), he partnered with cousin Percival Roberts on building an iron works on their ancestral river tract.  On June 21, 1852 the men hired 4 carpenters, a boy and a few laborers and began construction on their first building.  The first hammer forge equipment was purchased from a James Rowland & Co.  Their maiden order was placed by the A. Whitney & Sons on October 8 of the same year, for “10 or 20 axles”.

1877 Hexamer Survey of Pencoyd Iron Works

1877 Hexamer Survey of Pencoyd Iron Works; Note the Sylvan Surroundings and Relatively Sparse Building Layout | Credit: Free Library Phila

Entries in the business log describe receiving coal by team (a carriage pulled by horses) and unloading sand from canal boats from the river below.  The railroad siding should have provided ideal delivery of raw materials and transportation of finished goods, but curiously the P&R RR would not immediately build the entrepreneurs a railroad siding.  As a bicycle ride today would confirm, Righter’s Ferry Road is very steep and back in the days of horse teams, this could not be a preferred entry or exit to the foundry.  Luckily the natural endowment of river access would keep business going until the proper rail spur was installed.

Worker Housing on Righter's Ferry Road, Pencoyd Village

Surviving Trio of Worker Houses in Pencoyd Village; Property Attributed to a “Mrs. Sutton” on Author’s 1907 Map

As with many factories, a small community began to grow along the site, naturally called Pencoyd Village.  Reports of a rowdy tavern at the north end of the site made for lively news in it’s day.  Records for the Continental Hotel describe a large structure near the ferry landing.  Small houses for workers were built on Righter’s Ferry Road, with a small row surviving today opposite the lower cemetery gates.

The hills above Pencoyd had been estates owned by several families.  In 1869 the property of Anthony Anderson, George Ott and others was purchased to establish West Mount Laurel Cemetery.  A Sunday afternoon escape to a sylvan country cemetery was very much a Victorian-era pastime, and with the city’s old Mt. Laurel reaching its capacity, developing a cemetery on the somewhat remote natural and dramatic hilltop siting of West Laurel would have been a solid business venture.

Early maps and the Hexamer Survey point to an original train station (pre-cemetery) on the south side of Righter’s Ferry Road – the same as Mrs. Sutton’s Trio.  At some point the train station was rebuilt on the north side of Righter’s Ferry Road, ostensibly to better serve the cemetery visitors.  The locations for both stations are covered by the I-76 expressway, with no visible remains to ponder.

Pencoyd Station c1890

Late 19th Century View of Pencoyd Station; Stop Here for Eternal Peace Above, Industrial Chatter Below | Credit: Free Library Phila

The Pencoyd foundry started out with smaller-scale soft wrought iron parts like railroad axles and bridge parts.  The firm tentatively moved into structural members, engineering and design, by 1859 the foundry adding “Bridge Company” to it’s name.  The firm’s big break came from none other than the giant Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876.  machinery-hall-1876A very short timeline was given for the design, construction and erection of the buildings; prefabricated iron and glass designs being the natural solution for structures such as Machinery Hall and the Main Building at 21.5 acres floor space, what would then be the largest building in the world.  To the surprise of many larger competitors, A & P Roberts Pencoyd Iron Works was awarded this massive contract, even though the mills could not at that time make parts long enough to satisfy the designs.  The Hexamer survey shows the diminutive plant around the time of the Exhibition commision, although it should be noted some fabrication work was done off site in Edge Moor.

Expansions and Mergers

Pencoyd Iron Works c1907

1907 Estate Map of Lower Merion Township | Author’s Personal Collection

Throughout the late 19th century Pencoyd would grow exponentially, covering the entire river site with buildings and the addition of rail tracks along the river.  The railroad connected a short line across the property to Venice Island with an elegant curving single-track bridge which remains in use today.  Around 1900 today’s Pencoyd Bridge was installed to connect with lower Manayunk for additional rail access and as noted by the cemetery’s contemporary marketing, walking traffic from the city to West Mount Laurel.  The Hexamer Surveys of 1887 and 1891 show a much more modern factory site.

Hexamer Survey of Pencoyd Iron Works 1891

Hexamer Survey of 1891 – Showing the North Side of Pencoyd Iron Works | Credit: Free Library Phila

Around 1900 the firm merged with the venerable American Bridge Company.  Providing truss bridges all around the continent, Pencoyd continued to expand at a prodigious rate.  A special highlight for the firm would be the Upper Steel Arch Bridge over Niagara Falls, completed in 1898, at that time the longest steel arch span in the world.  Percival Roberts Jr. was chairman during this golden age, his co-founder father vacating this position upon dying early of exhaustion.  Mr. Roberts retired on May 24, 1901 after 25 years of service which began shortly after the Centennial.  The man was celebrated with a gala on January 18, 1902 at the company’s clubhouse located across the river at Manayunk Ave. and Osborn Street, with all employees in attendance.  This property was later donated to the city for the construction of a library, given by the company’s new chairman Andrew Carnegie, who absorbed Pencoyd/American Bridge into his giant United States Steel Co.

View of Pencoyd Iron Works from the Reading Viaduct

Pencoyd c1900 | Credit: LMHS

Consolidation, competition and technological advancements arrived with the new century.  Pencoyd was a busy factory through WWI but then began to decline, with the powerhouse steel centers of Pittsburgh and the Rust Belt able to expand their capacities way beyond the little Pencoyd river tract’s 19th century siting could manage.  A new rail connection was made at the north side of the site (the existing viaduct showing the date 1917), possibly a connection to the Cynwyd line.  Landlocked, the factory steadily declined, finally shutting down the furnaces on December 31, 1943.  The I-76 expressway cuts across the top of the property, just above the rail corridor, further isolating this forgotten land.  For years the site remained vacant or disused, with recent owner Connelly Containers maintaining some metal industrial buildings and a very busy health club doing business on the southern end of the tract.

The “Furness Building” and Pencoyd Landing

Today, development of the Pencoyd site is well underway.  The previously-mentioned apartment complex was quickly erected in the past 12 months, not yet appearing on a Google satellite view.  Another set of developers have now begun improving the core area surrounding Righter’s Ferry Road, it’s future apartments, retail and hotel complex to be called Pencoyd Landing.  In anticipation of the development the Penn Real Estate Co. renovated a modest brick structure for their offices, the only original A. & P. Roberts structure to survive.  This restored building is handsome and the new owners believe the structure could have been designed by Philadelphia’s great architect Frank Furness.  The building is described as an office and drawing room with pumping equipment in the 1883 Hexamer survey.  Appearing to be integrated in design with the attached machine shop, this would have been a nice commission for Furness.  Could it be?

Pencoyd Iron Works Office and Pump House Building

Closeup View of Office and Pump House Building

The new owners have correctly identified Furness-like brick features such as the lovely corbel cornice.  Adding curiosity to the case, in 1889 Furness & Evans Inc. designed a house for family member George B. Roberts in Bala Cynwyd (since demolished).  Alas, no record exists for this factory and office/pump house building in Furness’ papers.  Photographs of the 1889 Roberts house reveal it being very much business partner Evans’ work, more of a standard country home.  Evans was likely contracted for the home commission by virtue of relation to the Roberts family through marriage, choosing to run the project through the firm as opposed to solo.  Sadly, this otherwise handsome building is likely not a Furness.

Restored Pencoyd Iron Works Building 2017

Pencoyd Iron Works Office in 2017 | Credit: Mick Ricereto

Visiting Pencoyd Today

Along with this commercial development comes the aforementioned expansion of the Pencoyd Trail, slated to link with the Cynwyd Heritage Trail by way of the hidden 1917 viaduct past the Venice Island bridge at the northern extreme of the property.  As seen today, this thickly overgrown strip contains only a few vestiges of the site’s history, including an abandoned rail car and weed-encased tracks deep into the trees.  Like your author’s bicycle wanderings, visitors today can catch a glimpse of the abandoned wildness before it disappears completely.

Old Industrial Buildings at Pencoyd Iron Works

View to Iron Works Site from Atop the Reading RR Viaduct | Credit: Mick Ricereto

The existing metal buildings are not original to the Pencoyd complex and in any rate will be taken down soon.  However the steel gantry structure along the water looks to be a relic from the iron works and will be retained in the new design.  The original retaining wall under the rail viaduct runs the entire length of the site and is a constant reminder of this place’s rich history.  This wall actually formed the interior wall for some factory buildings and cut-off iron bits still protrude from the wall.  Paddlers on the Schuylkill can inspect the bridges, ancient granite quay and the crumbling valley stream culverts from the waterline.  Although noise from I-76 is very intrusive, biking up to the top of West Mount Laurel gives a lovely view of the entire tract from above.

The Future Pencoyd Landing

Rendering of Pencoyd Landing; This Structure Would Replace the Building Above | Credit: JDavis Architects

Before the Pencoyd Bridge reopened, the only vehicular way to the site was by plunging down from City Line between the cemetery roads on Righter’s Ferry.  This remains the author’s favorite approach.  Catch a glimpse of the secret site of Pencoyd Iron Works before the mystery is gone, and listen close to the old retaining wall for the ghostly sounds of clanging iron and the distant whistle of steam.

Author’s Note: The Hexamer surveys are available to browse on the Free Library’s website, and one can zoom in for some incredibly-detailed high resolution viewing.


Gallery of the Author’s Pencoyd Iron Works Site Photos in Early 2017:

Fever, Manayunk – 1821

While enjoying some research about the Schuylkill Navigation in Philadelphia – better known as the Manayunk Canal – I came across this wonderful map at the Library of Congress.  Manayunk is a wonderful 18-19th century mill town on the Schuylkill river.  To further illustrate this magical place, I give you a wonderful excerpt on the Millworker’s fever of 1821 in Manayunk, taken from a book titled Early History of the Falls of Schuylkill, Manayunk, Schuylkill and Lehigh Navigation Companies, Fairmount Waterworks, etc. by Charles Valerius Hagner, an early industrialist of the area, published in 1869(!)

1907 View of Manayunk, Philadelphia

1907 View of Philadelphia’s Manayunk Neighborhood; Credit LOC

“… He retreated, with his family, to Germantown, and I fled to the Leverington Hotel on the Ridge Road; not, however until the disease had taken fast hold of me; and I served a regular apprenticeship to it, off and on, for some three or four years.  At that time there was a race of men in existence, employed in the woollen manufactories, who have since become entirely extinct.  They came from England.  Their business was to shear cloth with an immense pair of shears from three to five feet long.  They were shortly after superseded by the invention of the cloth-shearing machines now in use.  They were biped animals certainly, but stupidly ignorant.  They had been accustomed from youth up to handle these cloth shears, which they did well; beyond that they did not appear to have a single idea, except drinking porter, which they did by wholesale.

Those kind of workmen were very much wanted at that time and hard to be got.  Captain Towers and the Prestons obtained five or six of them from Yorkshire, England.  They arrived here in the extreme warm weather, clothed in the thickest kind of woollen garments, woollen stockings, &c.  They were all remarkably large stout men of fine healthy color and appearance, but one month’s residence at Manayunk was quite sufficient to “use them up;” any person who had seen them at the beginning of the month and again at the end of it, would be almost ready to swear they were not the same party.  All their fine rosy color had vanished, and they became miserable, cadaverous, melancholy looking objects.

From sheer ignorance and stupidity two of them lost their lives.  One, when in the hot stage of the disease, to cool himself went into a damp cellar, stripped himself, and lay on his back on the damp ground.  There happened to be a jug of buttermilk within his reach, he drank it and was a corpse in a very short time.  Another got an idea that it required something powerfully strong to kill the disease; he procured a pint of horseradish and cider which he swallowed at one gulp.  It threw him into convulsions and he died.

With a few such exceptions as these the disease was rarely fatal; on the contrary, often the subject of mirth.  It was quite a common affair to see half a dozen at a time around Silas Levering’s stove in the bar-room of his hotel, all shaking at the same time, others looking on quizzing and laughing at them; and more than once have I seen the tables turned, and the merry ones obliged to take their turn at the stove and be laughed at.”


 

A note about the wonderful hand-painted map (see link HERE); the view is taken from southeast, the hilltop in Lower Merion (height exaggerated), part of the original Welsh Tract sold by William Penn to Quaker settlers in 1683.  Look here again for a future story on a particularly interesting site in Lower Merion called the Pencoyd Iron Works, the smokestacks seen along the river in the foreground of the painting.

The Delair Bridge

This is the story of the Delair railroad bridge across the Delaware river, for which an edited version appeared this week in Hidden City Philadelphia.  You can see the Hidden City article here.  I have been intrigued with this bridge for years, as it is not well seen from anywhere along the normal river viewpoints in the city.  After doing some research and photographing along the shoreline, I found the story of South Jersey’s railways and the quest for faster Atlantic City travel to be fascinating.  Enjoy a trip across the big steel trusses and through the NJ Pinelands with me.

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The Delair Railroad Bridge – A Hidden Bridge on the Delaware River

phila-history-pic-2

The Delair Bridge c1900; Credit: Philly History

On June 28 Mayor Kenney signed the city legislation needed to purchase the abandoned railroad swing bridge that crosses the Schuylkill just south of Grays Ferry Avenue.  Work will soon commence on raising the historic Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore RR Bridge No. 1 for it’s conversion to our new SRT bicycle and pedestrian crossing to Bartram’s Mile.  Abandoned since 1976, the bridge is rusting quietly in the open position waiting for a new lease on life.

The PWB Swing Bridge

PW&B’s Bridge No. 1 as seen today from the Grays Ferry bridge; Credit: Mick Ricereto 2016

Philadelphia – a former industrial powerhouse and erstwhile “workshop of the world” – is covered with train tracks both active and abandoned, with bridges crossing every small and large piece of water in the region.  Rail travel was an important technology in the 19th century, allowing factories and communities all across the continent to be efficiently linked, growing our Victorian society exponentially in a matter of decades.

Down at the Schuylkill Crescent, the PW&B’s 1902 swingspan replaced the first permanent crossing, an 1838 multi-modal bridge called the Newkirk Viaduct.  When the city of Philadelphia built the adjacent Grays Ferry road bridge in 1901, the railroad was free to remove the obsolete wooden bridge and build a modern steel span.

The Schuylkill was all that stood between Philadelphia and the early railroads linking points south – a mere 800 foot river crossing but a challenge nonetheless.  For trains going north of Philadelphia, the southernmost crossing was at Trenton, where tidewater abruptly stops to meet the 8 foot Falls of the Delaware.  The first rail bridge across the Delaware river was here in 1802.  Interestingly this bridge evolved over the years to become today’s Trenton Makes steel truss which was completed in 1928.  

Bridge builders eyeing points south of Trenton were presented a far-mightier challenge due to the river’s extreme width, tidal action and soft river bottom.  It would be another 94 years before the first Philadelphia crossing was completed – Pennsylvania Railroad’s massive 4-span Petit truss Pennsylvania & New Jersey Railroad Bridge, known colloquially as the Delair Bridge.

Delair Bridge c.1960

The Delair Bridge from PA Side c1990; Credit: LOC.gov

Located just south of the Frankford creek in the Bridesburg section of Philadelphia and spanning to the Pennsauken, NJ area known as Delair, this massive structure was needed as much for freight and rail commerce as it was for holiday-making down the shore.  To know the history of the Delair Bridge we must also examine Philly’s summertime quest with reaching the NJ coast and Atlantic City in particular.

Philadelphia’s Summer Getaway

America’s first premier holiday destination was Cape May, NJ.  Long before rail travel, vacationers could sail down the Delaware on special excursion vessels and disembark on the bay side of the peninsula, often taking extended stays away from the frenzy of 18th century city life.  Catering to the more well heeled looking for nature, fishing and fresh air, Cape May was also known to entertain many of our Presidents for a summertime stay at the beach.

A voyager could also travel to NJ by Ferry directly from Philadelphia due east to Camden, and make the trip by carriage.  A phalanx of ferry companies had traversed the waters between Philadelphia and Camden dating all the way back to 1688.  The ferries welcomed passenger traffic as well as a huge trade in produce and livestock transport needed to feed America’s biggest city.  In the 18th and early 19th century, a coach ride from Camden to the shore would be a dusty, bumpy affair and could take as many as 4 hours.

Market Street Philadelphia c1898

Market Street Ferry Terminal c.1896; Credit: Phila. Free Library)

In the early 1800s southern NJ was still completely wild, with the beach areas being a proverbial barren desert.  After a visit to the almost-vacant Absecon Island an enterprising medical doctor by the name of Jonathan Pitney envisioned opportunity in getting Philadelphians out to the shore in by creating a new resort town expressly for taking in the healthy sea air.  Pitney realized only a railroad could get people across the pine desert of southern NJ in a quick and efficient manner.  Pitney partnered with entrepreneur Samuel Richards to build a new railroad from the Camden waterfront directly to the shore, convincing factory owners along the route that rail travel would help their businesses grow.  Most of the investors thought the idea to build a health resort at the ocean end of the line was pure folly, but invested only for the important rail connection to the city and their core markets.  Pitney and Richards raised enough capital to buy property all the way through from Camden to the coast and also purchase the entire island from early settlers.  The partners began their plans for the new resort; Atlantic City was incorporated on May 1, 1854 with the first cross-state trip of the Camden & Atlantic City Railroad on July 1 of that year.  The first train was a rustic open car rattletrap, but the adventure still attracted 600 hand-picked passengers for the maiden voyage.

Growth of the new town was swift; Pitney and Richards were smart to subsequently build an enormous hotel on the beach, quickly realizing that working-class folk would benefit the most by taking short stays or even day trips from the city.  By 1874 500,000 Philadelphians made it to the shore during the summer season, prompting a second railroad to be added in 1877.  The Philadelphia-Atlantic City Railway Co. undercut the Camden & AC substantially, with a one-way “excursion” ticket for $1.  Inexpensive hotels and boarding housed popped up all along the newly-laid Atlantic City street grid.  A working-class man could now afford a week at the shore with his family; the Jersey Shore was born.

The competing West Jersey Railroad completed their line to Cape May in 1863 but by then it was clear; Atlantic City had become America’s playground.  The permanent boardwalk was added in 1896.  The year-round population of Atlantic City was only 2000 in 1875; by 1900 it had swelled to 30,000.  The more distant Cape May would be frozen as a charming but sleepy Victorian outpost.

A Quicker Way to the Shore

The mighty Pennsylvania Railroad wanted a piece of the Atlantic City action.  The largest railroad in the world – in fact the largest corporation in the world at the end of the 19th century – went on a buying spree.  Pitney and Richard’s original railroad and many smaller railroads throughout western NJ were purchased and absorbed into the PRR subsidiary West Jersey & Seashore RR (WJ&S) in 1896.  Competition was very strong with 4 railroad companies crisscrossing the Delaware, ferry boats heaving the shallow tidewater into Camden’s piers many times daily.  The Penn wanted desperately to create an advantage and decided to build a bridge across the Delaware.  The tracks would need to skirt around the city’s Northeast industrial web but a direct route from center city’s Broad Street Terminal (the world’s largest train station) and across the river would still be more convenient than making the ferry trip to Camden.

A "Barrel View" of the Delair Bridge

Inside truss detail looking west towards the Richmond Electric Station, c1990; Credit: LOC.gov

Crossing the Delaware required a movable span to allow for marine traffic, as building a bridge high enough for ocean-going vessels would be too costly.  PRR head engineer William H. Brown called for a 323’ swingspan at the shipping channel, connected with 3 sections of massive 533’ Petit truss spans – 1 on the NJ side and two on the Pennsylvania.  The Delair trusses would be very large and heavy, but still fall short of the longest truss spans by a mere 9 feet.  The swing span was operated by steam and held the record for the longest center bearing pivot bridge in the world.  Including the trestle approaches on both sides, total length of the structure is 4396 feet.  Compare this with the later Ben Franklin bridge at 9573’, much longer due to the gradual climb needed to make 135’ shipping clearance.

The Delair Bridge in 2016

The Delair Bridge today from Pennsauken, NJ with Richmond Electric Station and a distant center city in view; Credit: Mick Ricereto 2016

Work began with pier excavation on January 15, 1895.  The steel work was started on November 1 of that year, and was finished in only 4 months.  The massive trusses were fabricated with manganese steel milled by the Pencoyd Iron Works, the first large bridge to use the new high-tensile material.  Pencoyd was located in Lower Merion Township directly across the Schuylkill from Manayunk.  Interestingly, the hidden Pencoyd site is currently being redeveloped and the small rail bridge connecting to the site to the city – known as the Pencoyd Bridge – was recently restored as a car and pedestrian crossing.

Delair Bridge Plaque

The original builder’s plaque located on pier 6; Credit: LOC.gov

Throughout the first 30 years of use the Delair was busy with passenger traffic as Atlantic City entered it’s busy “Boardwalk Empire” period, with more and more weary city dwellers making the <90 minute trip from Broad Street for a week’s or even an afternoon’s promise of surf, sun and sin.  Even after prohibition in 1920 – or perhaps even more so – Atlantic City was a place of escape due to it’s relaxed rules on booze and other illicit activities.  As Nelson Johnson writes in his book Boardwalk Empire; The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City “… it was a place where visitors came knowing the rules at home didn’t apply.  The city flourished because it gave its guests what they wanted – a naughty good time at an affordable price”.  The railroads too were booming, right up until the day the new Delaware Bridge (today named Ben Franklin) opened on July 1, 1926.  With Philadelphia’s blue collar workers now wealthy enough to own personal cars and the advantage of cheap bus fares via the bridge, the railroads began to immediately suffer.  By 1928, the WJ&S was down $2 million in revenue compared to just two years prior.

Mid Century Modification

In the 1950’s post-war boom years, America had an immense appetite for steel as buildings and projects such as the Interstate Highway System created a huge demand for materials.  Responding to eastern demand, United States Steel started construction on the Fairless Hills steel plant on the upper tidal Delaware in the late 1940s.  To serve this upcoming business, the Army Corps of Engineers decided to upgrade the river’s shipping capacity by straightening and dredging a deeper channel, while also requiring 500’ wide bridge clearance for more modern ships.  Suddenly the Delair’s old pivot bridge was obsolete, with clearance not even half the new requirement.

The railroad’s engineers responded by permanently closing the old swing span and converting one of the original Petit trusses to a 542’ riveted Warren truss vertical lift span which would raise up for boat traffic to a height of 135’, equal to the Ben Franklin bridge.  This engineering feat would require removing the original truss, building new piers and lift towers and installing the new pre-fabricated moving section quickly so as not to upset rail traffic for an unreasonable period.

Delair Bridge Modifications in 1960

The new vertical lift span is floated into place in 1960; Credit: Creative Commons (photographer unknown)

Work began on March 1, 1960.  The engineering concern Hardesty & Hanover, known for their work with railroad lift spans, was hired to complete the job.  While sections of the bridge were being dismantled, the new span and towers were being constructed upriver and brought to the site on barges.  The old span was removed by floating a barge underneath at low tide and lifting it away 6 hours later, while the new span was put in place similarly by lowering it at high tide and letting the barge float away as the river level went down.

The new lift towers needed huge piers to hold both the weight of trains, the bridge span itself and it’s equal weight in cable-actuated counterweights.  The westernmost span needed to be shortened by 100’ to make room for the towers.  The result is the unique, asymmetrical look of 4 different trusses.

Wide View of the Delair Bridge in 1960

The Delair Bridge during construction of the piers in 1960.  The lift towers not yet built, note the shortened original western span; Credit: Creative Commons (photographer unknown)

When completed, the upgraded structure captured the record for longest double track vertical lift span in the US, falling short of the longest single track lift by only two feet (the Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge, built in 1933).

The Delair Bridge Today

The Delair Bridge in 2016

The Delair remains a busy rail bridge today; Credit: Mick Ricereto 2016

Today the bridge is used for CSX and Norfolk Southern rail transportation as well as NJ Transit’s Atlantic City line.  The bridge was modernized heavily in 2012 with an $18.5 million TIGER grant, bringing the structure safely into the 21st century.

Curiously the Delair is mostly hidden from our daily lives.  Seen briefly from I-95 – near appropriately, the Bridge Street exit – the lift span towers look dark and menacing in the shadows of the Betsy Ross.  From the south the Richmond Electric Station and Tioga Marine Terminal blocks the shoreline for miles.  The best viewing is from the Jersey side as the bridge is located at the end of the road with a small parking lot for a boat launch ramp and tiny fishing pier.

Detail View of the Delair Bridge 2016

Detail view of the Delair swing span; Credit – Mick Ricereto 2016

Taking NJT’s Atlantic City line out of 30th Street Station is a fabulous way to experience the bridge.  The right-of-way takes an alternate route through the industrial northeast of the city, into Frankford Junction and over the Delaware.  For a transit-filled afternoon, take the NJT from 30th Street, stop and view the bridge from water’s edge at Pennsauken station and then walk back up the hill for the River Line back to Camden.  From here walk over the Ben Franklin or take PATCO back over and connect to anywhere in the city.

Photos from the B&O Railroad Museum

This past Saturday I meandered over to Baltimore’s B&O Railroad Museum, something I had wanted to do for years.  Although many historic buildings have been removed after the B&O merged and absorbed it’s way into CSX transportation, there is still the amazing 22-sided “roundhouse” and some old car shop buildings on site.  The big draw, however, are the ancient locomotives, passenger cars and other supporting rolling stock.

The B&O railroad was one of the first in the world, with the short trip from Baltimore to Ellicott Mills (20 kilometers) being the first self-powered line in the USA.  There are many priceless rail vehicles dating from the earliest days, as well as some incredible monster locomotives from the 20th century.  I brought my camera and wandered through the old buildings getting close up to all the iron and dust.

B&O Railcar Interior

What I didn’t know is that we would be able to climb aboard many of the train cars and engines and imagine what it would have been like back in the railroad’s glory days.  Most of my pictures were taken in the southern car shop, out of the way of the train-crazy children and demonstrations.

Detail of old Steam Locomotive

It wasn’t my intention to shoot everything that had a grey-blue and black hue, but the old trains were speaking to me, drawing me to the shadows to study the age marks and wrinkles in the incredible old surfaces.

Old Railcar Detail

4 or 5 impossibly large locomotives are berthed next to each other in the old shop, possibly 120 or 150 centimeters shoulders apart.  There really is no way to step back and get a full shot of these magnificent beasts, but I was happy to get close and smell the waxy grease and study the giant forged mechanicals.

Locomotive Wheels at B&O Museum

The most impressive locomotive was one of the last steam engines built in the USA, the early 1940’s #1604 “Allegeny” 2-6-6-6 coal-hauling monster.  The numbers refer to how many wheels the engine has.  The main wheels are 160cm tall and the locomotive + tender (the coal cart behind the engine) together are as long as the building they are parked in.  The engine was built to haul coal trains from West Virginia up to the coal dumper in Baltimore’s middle branch harbor.  Standing next to or on top of this thing is awe-inspiring.  The engine itself weighs 389 tons.  That is 778,000 pounds.  The coal tender, loaded weighed 215 tons.  Now, they rest in darkness, silent and regal.

Detail of #1604 Allegeny Locomotive Hopper Car

Because these relics are safely indoors, their state of preservation feels as if they could awake at any moment.  Almost completely free of signage or modern interpretation, the big engines feel as if they rolled up for their last journey, the barn doors were shut and the overhead lights turned out.

Detail of Steam Engine Works

Listen close to the pipes and hoses and you can almost hear the hissing of steam.

Detail of Railcar Coupling

Considering the weight of these giants, it is amazing the condition of the concrete floor.  This particular car shop was not originally built for locomotives, but merely for the fitting out of passenger car interiors.  This building was constructed to last.

Train Car Detail

The volunteers at the B&O are very friendly and helpful.  The old boy sitting by the front door of the car shop jumped out of his seat to talk to me and give information about the building and the locomotives.  The yellow crane below is still functional, and the docent pointed out some recent activity with some diesel engine restoration in one corner.  On this day however, it was a quiet winter afternoon in the old train shed.

Decrepit Rail Car

When I was a small boy I witnessed the ’76 Freedom Train go by the tracks near my neighborhood in NJ.  It was a restored steam engine pulling historic cars filled with Americana.  We only saw the train pass by, but it was an intoxicating and unforgettable sensory experience.

There is something magical about the billowing steam, the aching moan of a steam whistle, the jerking motion of the piston and cranks working away at speed.  To see something like the Allegeny #1604 pulling a train of coal cars up a mountain must have been an impressive sight.  Sleep well old iron, after a life of burden you have earned your rest.

Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s new film is called The Grand Budapest Hotel and like all his others, it is a quirky, visual treat that will leave you smiling.

Grand Budapest Hotel Exterior Door

The story orbits a fictional East European/Alpine resort hotel in 1932, told in flashback by a visiting English writer in Iron Curtain-era 1968, long gone are the edifice’s best days.  There are many well-known accomplished actors playing exquisite roles, such as Harvey Keitel playing a lifelong convict, Ed Norton as chief Gestapo and Ralph Fiennes as the lead in role Gustave, the hotel’s charming concierge.

Elevator from Grand Budapest Hotel

The plot is something of a caper, as Gustave inherits a valuable painting from a countess he has befriended over the years (played by Tilda Swinton above), with the surviving family more than a little bitter over their mother’s relationship with the concierge.  Hijinks ensue as Gustave enlists his trusty lobby boy Zero to help snatch the painting and hide it from the family’s assassin played by Willem Dafoe.

The story is fantastic, and along with the music and intoxicating production design, this film delivers a great escape on a rainy Spring day.

Grand Budapest Hotel Scene

The production designer is Adam Stockhausen, who puts together a great pastiche of old-World Europe and Cold War-era cues to create something very unique.  There is a big clash between older building shell and some newer detail shots that clearly came from another real-life interior.  Contrast the shot of the 1932 main desk above with the 1968 conceierge’s desk below.

Concierge Desk from Grand Budapest Hotel

The latter shot reminds me of 1960’s hotels in Italian and German spa towns.  It seems incongruous to have both scenes coming from the same building, but the director naturally uses the modern renovations in the 1968 flashback scenes, heightening the “loss of grandeur” feeling of the hotel in it’s fading years.  The 1932 shots are full of people, traditional dress and accompanied by sweeping music.  The 1968 scenes are empty, somber and reflective.

The main interior scenes were shot at the Görlitzer Warenhaus, an Art Deco (Jugendstil) masterpiece department store in Berlin that somehow survived the war intact.

Görlitzer Warenhaus in Berlin

The visual feast is not just in color and escapist scenery, but by using interesting camera angles and framing conversations in creative, non-natural ways as to embrace the fairy tale feeling of adventure.  Anderson uses this type of square-on shot in his film over and over, to create a unique look to the entire piece.  Here Zero and his chocolatier paramour embrace amidst boxes of chocolates.

Mendl's Chocolates and his two lovers

As I mentioned to a friend of mine recently, there seems to be a lot of interest in pre-WWII European life and stories in English-language film and TV.  I feel a romanticism for this “between” era, with the still visible aristocratic history facing the loss-of-innocence early 20th-century, just before the old Europe gets swept away.  Anderson really puts this feeling in perspective with his film, especially by using the Communist-era styling as a contrast to the glory days before the war.  Iron Curtain architecture, product design and culture is something of a trend right now, as more and more people are starting to embrace it’s quirky, “efficient” style.  More than anything, this film made me want to jump on my bicycle and tour Eastern Europe, before all these old buildings get torn down!

A scene from the film showing an elaborate bath from the “original” hotel building.

Bath Scene from Grand Budapest Hotel

And finally, a scene showing the filmmaker during an interview, in the “modern” lobby from 1968.  Truthfully, I love both of these styles so much.  How I love these rich orange and brown 1960s interiors.

1968 Grand Budapest Hotel Lobby

All of the above photos are from Fox Searchlight as part of their online promotion.  Go see the film and escape to a charming world of 20th-Century fantasy.

For more design tidbits and news on my latest projects, please have a look at my Facebook page at MickRDesign

 

Winter Walks; the Flaneur and His Camera

I’ve been taking some long walks and hikes the past few days, over our Thanksgiving holiday here in the States.  It has been fairly cold – just above freezing – but the crisp air and stark light invites the wandering eye upon mountain trails and old village scenes.  There is something special about winter with the relatively quiet forests and long views across leafless vistas.  The same with small old towns; I envision inhabitants sipping cocoa by the fire instead of walking about, leaving the old sidewalks to me and the still afternoon alone.  After looking at scores of images I snapped throughout the weekend, I thought to share a few with my readers.

First, an image from Soldier’s Delight, a state park in Maryland.  The land in central MD was once dominated by these large savannahs, joined by small groupings of distorted, stunted Blackjack oak and Virginia pine.  This 1900-acre preserve is all that is left of the natural landscape.  I find beauty in the power line towers, however ironic their path might be through the preserve.

Soldier's Delight, MD

A felled tree in Susquehanna State Park, along the majestic river of the same name.

Felled Tree

At the end of an afternoon, I wandered into the tiny old river town of Port Deposit, Maryland.

Brick Municipal Building Port Deposit Maryland

There are many seemingly-abandoned houses in this little town.  Wedged between the mighty Susquehanna river and a fair mountain to the north, this town consists of nothing more than the river’s edge, one narrow road and an ancient rail corridor.

Abandoned House in Port Deposit Maryland

A forlorn playground.

Abstract Playground

Another lonely old building, right on the curb of the only road in town.

Old Building Facade in Port Deposit, MD

Last light over the Susquehanna river, standing on the rocky escarpment above Port Deposit.

Sunset on the Susquehanna from Port Deposit, MD

In the design world, many projects are coming to their conclusion and I’ll be able to show some finished photos soon.  Also check my Facebook page for small anecdotes and project updates: www.facebook.com/MickRDesign

SieMatic Haus Fair 2013

Just back from SieMatic’s “Haus Fair”, the annual presentation of new product and display ideas at the factory in Loehne, Germany.  This year the company focused on “Great New Insights”, a major update to the interiors of the cabinets.  An elegant new drawer system was presented, with new internal accessories in wood and aluminum.  Some highlights:

SieMatic display cubes

Here, in a quiet moment during the show, are the SieMatic drawer system display cubes.  There are several options for the new drawer system, and the cubes show each level upgrade.  The core drawer will now be a very slim aluminum-color steel drawer box, for which custom sizes will now be available (!).  The upgrade will be actual aluminum, which showed a more refined level of finish.

SieMatic Island Detail

In this new “lifestyle display”, so called due to the integrated living space, the new drawer bodies are shown in the two main heights.  In addition to the drawer body finish, aluminum-front shelves and a square-profile grey door dust seal are now available.  Some details of drawer inserts – aluminum and light oak:

SieMatic drawer system 2013

The biggest innovation was a microfiber material SieMatic calls Flocking.  This new drawer mat is integrated into the insert system.  A felt-like material, flocking added a high-tech feel to the system.

Aluminum and Chestnut drawer system by SieMatic

The new chestnut finish coordinates better with some finishes where light oak would clash.  Note the integrated USB charging center.  As seen above and below, the inserts are sitting loose on the flocking mat and can easily be reconfigured.  The base of the accessory has a rubber grip, which holds against the flocking for a no-slip condition.

SieMatic Drawer Accessory System

Some views to the new “lifestyle” display.  Note the absence of handles; the drawers are released with a electronic “touch latch”, which is immensely popular in Europe at present.

SieMatic Display

This display combined existing finishes of Flannel Grey matte, Graphite gloss and natural walnut.  We were quite enamored of this combination and are starting to plan some new displays for North America like this already.  The walnut finish is shown as 5 wall panels in the middle of the room.  Also opening as touch latch, this helps make the room seem so much less like a “kitchen” and makes a Total Home integrated interior.  Note also how certain areas have doors or drawers which go all the way to the floor.  If not a primary work surface, this makes sense, otherwise, you would want a recessed toe space to get closer to the countertop without smacking your feet.

SieMatic Display

The best part about Haus Fair is catching up with your friends.  Here, Jonas and Wendy Carnemark pick finishes for some new displays.

IMG_1748

Relaxing with Marcia Speer, director of market development in N.A. and SieMatic Montreal manager Jean-Martin Lapointe.SieMatic, Loehne Germany

We stayed in the small town of Bad Salzuflen again.  I posted about this spa town last year – it is quite lovely.  Some of these timber buildings have dates as old as “Anno 1530”.

Bad Salzuflen Germany

Loehne is in northwestern Germany, making it convenient for me to fly through Amsterdam.  I always try and take a little time to revisit the city, this time seeing the Rijksmuseum for the first time since its 10-year renovation.  What would be a trip to Amsterdam without a walk down my favorite little street, Langestraat?  Search for past posts on this lovely little lane for more pictures.

Langestraat in Amsterdam

Again, another great release of new products from SieMatic.  It is a wonderful privilege to work with this respected brand, and I look forward to specifying these new interiors immediately upon returning to my office.