Recent Kitchen Projects

Since January of 2018 I’ve been working with Poggenpohl, Germany’s oldest kitchen brand, since 1892.  I’ve done a variety of projects in the ensuing months, presented in both hand drawings and NPR/Sketchup renderings.  Here are some samples:

This first project is a lovely stone house c1913 on a quiet lane in the leafy northwest section of Philadelphia.  Always difficult fitting a modern kitchen into a small cottage with low ceilings and without ability to move any walls or alter much of anything architecturally.

Kathleen Hogan Light Oak 3_19

This next project is a beach condominium renovation, a complete gut/reconstruct which is centered around the kitchen and living ensemble.  Although the project has evolved considerably this original concept gives and idea of the space:

Morrison Main Update 8_7

This project is another beach residence, this time a new construction open plan retreat with sweeping views of the back bay.  The original, very quick concept sketch:

Leslie Kitchen Sketch

And after many changes, the final rendering.  The finishes are Sand Grey including a matching matte glass 11′ countertop, light and dark ash and the short-lived Silestone Silver Lake quartz for the mono-block island.  Short lived?  Silestone discontinued this finish almost as soon as they introduced it.  We loved the finish and searched hard to find the slabs as it was too heartbreaking to look for something else to reach the same effect.

Leslie 1_12 Revised

This next project is a sprawling 1980’s modern house in a pastoral Pennsylvania valley town.  1980’s houses are fascinating, with red oak floors throughout and original kitchens that still look good but have hopelessly outdated appliances and semi-concealed (and non-functioning) old Sub Zero refrigerators.  In this case, the original owners put in an Almillmo kitchen, and the new buyers wanted to keep in the spirit of the home.

We tied into the original Jenn Air downdraft location since a vent hood was not possible with the epic 20′ skylight down the middle of the room.  Looking out onto a koi pond, the space has a wonderful and well-lit feel.  We could not adjust the windows due to the stone exterior construction.

Jane New MODO 9_18

The best part of this project is how the owners came to acquire the property.  Jane, our client, grew up in the neighborhood.  She babysat in this house and loved the family who lived here.  After getting remarried in the mid 2000s, she was taking her new husband on a nostalgic trip down the old street when she noticed a for-sale sign on this stone-clad gem.  Seeking a new family home, Jane promptly made a winning offer and moved in with her new husband.

All the ensuing renovations and yard plantings have been sympathetic to her memories of the property.  She showed me a Polaroid of her babysitting in the house c1988 – and it still looks the same!  It was an honor to be part of such a passionate project.

Many more projects to share in future updates.

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.


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


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:

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:

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:

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.