Skip to main content

Roebling Aqueduct

In a quiet and often overlooked corner of Northeastern Pennsylvania, the country's oldest surviving suspension bridge crosses the Delaware River into New York.  The Delaware Aqueduct, designed and built by famed engineer John A. Roebling, has withstood a very colorful history from being an important piece in the region's transportation, to uncertainty during the growth of rail, nearly eight decades of neglect and poor management as a private toll bridge, to finally being restored by the National Park Service and in use as an automobile bridge today.

Construction and Canal Era (1847-1898):
During the 1840's, the Delaware & Hudson Canal was looking at ways to speed up service along its route.  One of the major bottlenecks was where the canal reached the Delaware River.  Since it began operation in 1828, the D&H used a rope ferry to pull traffic along to Canal across the Delaware.  The conflicting traffic of vessels going down the Delaware to Trenton or Philadelphia and of the coal freight cutting across the river on the canal created great bottlenecks.  That is in addition to the difficulty ferry operators would have fighting the powerful current. 

 
In 1847, the D&H commissioned John A. Roebling to construct a suspension bridge that would carry canal traffic above the Delaware.  In comparison to then-contemporary designs, Roebling's suspension design allowed for more room for downriver traffic and the dangerous ice floes to pass through.   Two years later on April 26, 1849 at a cost of  $41,750, Roebling's Delaware Aqueduct opened to canal traffic.  Soon thereafter, a sister suspension aqueduct, the Lackawaxen, was opened nearby at a cost of $18,650. (1)  The two bridges' impact were immediate and impressive as canal traffic was shortened by one full day.  The D&H was so impressed by the success and the bottom-line impact of the two bridges that they commissioned Roebling to design and construct another two.  Two years later, Roebling finished the construction of the Neversink and High Falls Aqueducts in New York.

Eight Decades of Neglect (1901-1980):
As railroads grew throughout the country, the need for canal traffic drastically declined.  In 1898, the D&H ceased operations.  Three of the four aqueducts, Neversink, High Falls, and Lackawaxen, were dismantled.  The Delaware, which still had a great deal of practical purpose as it crossed a major river, was sold to a private owner.  The owner, Charles Spurks, used the now dry aqueduct to haul logs for his lumber company across the bridge.  He built a toll house on the New York side of the river charging a toll to all others on the crossing. 
 
The bridge would change hands several times during the next 70-plus years.  As ownership changed, the condition of the bridge deteriorated.  The towpaths were dismantled, replaced by a handrail.  In 1933, the trunk of the bridge burned away completely.  Only the bridge deck was replaced, the walls of the aqueduct were not replaced.  A near tragedy occurred in 1977, when a truck fell through the bridge.  A lawsuit was filed against the then owners, but the bridge was only closed temporarily.  The condition of the bridge deck was so bad that one member of the park service said, "All one had to do was hop up and down on one end, and I could see a ripple running all the way from Pennsylvania to New York." (2) In 1980, the National Park Service bought the bridge and closed the structure in the hope to restore it. 

Restoration and Revival (1980-present):
Once the National Park Service owned the aqueduct, discussions and planning began on how to restore the bridge.  Before the bridge was under the Park Service control, the bridge was deemed in 1968 to be a National Historic Landmark.  In 1983, testing began on the strength of the bridge, and amazingly Roebling's original provisions easily met modern standards.  With most of the original superstructure intact, restoration began in 1985.  The restoration of the superstructure's base to Roebling's original specification was complete in 1986.  In 1995, the aqueduct walls, towpaths, and wooden icebreakers at the base of the piers were completed.

 
Today, the bridge is again open to vehicular traffic, without tolls.  It is a one lane bridge, and the former towpaths serve as sidewalks.  The toll house on the New York side remains and now serves as a history center detailing the history of the aqueduct, the D&H Canal, along with the restoration process.  With all original features of the bridge restored, crossing the bridge is like going back in time; the only difference, you don't need a boat to cross it.

Looking across the aqueduct into New York.  150 years ago, you would be underwater here.
From the towpath, more of the suspension superstructure.
The workings of the suspension superstructure is shown through glass partitions.
Looking downstream at the Delaware Aqueduct from the Pennsylvania shore of the Delaware.

Sources & Links:

  • (1) McCann, Brian.  "John Roebling and the Delaware Aqueduct." Pocono Lake Region Realtor. (April 1, 2007)
  • (2) Cobb, Emma. "Roebling's Bridge of Water."  Invention & Technology Magazine.  Vol. 2, Issue 1. Summer 1986.  Hosted by: americanheritage.com (April 1, 2007)
  • Roebling's Delaware Aqueduct ---National Park Service
  • Roebling's Delaware Aqueduct ---Bridgemeister.com
  • Comments

    Popular posts from this blog

    Sunshine Bridge (Donaldsonville, LA)

    Located about halfway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in southern Louisiana, the Sunshine Bridge spans the lower Mississippi River near the city of Donaldsonville as part of the longer Louisiana Highway 70 corridor, which connects Interstate 10 and Airline Highway (US 61) with US 90 in Morgan City. In the years following World War II, the only bridges across the lower Mississippi River in Louisiana were located in the area of the state’s two largest cities – Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Postwar agricultural and industrial development along the river in this region led to the planning of a series of infrastructure projects in southern Louisiana that were aimed at spurring this development and modernization of the Delta region. One of these projects was known as the Acadian Thruway and was developed in the 1950s as a toll road intended to connect greater New Orleans with Lafayette and points west while providing a high-speed bypass of the Baton Rouge metro area. The Thruway, which

    Horace Wilkinson Bridge (Baton Rouge, LA)

    Standing tall across from downtown Baton Rouge, the Horace Wilkinson Bridge carries Interstate 10 across the lower Mississippi River between West Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parishes. Unusually, the bridge is actually named for three separate people; three generations of Horace Wilkinsons who served in the Louisiana State Legislature over a combined period of 54 years. Constructed in the 1960s and opened to traffic in 1968, this is one of the largest steel bridges on the lower Mississippi. It’s also the tallest bridge across the Mississippi, with its roadway reaching 175 ft at the center span. Baton Rouge is the northernmost city on the river where deep-water, ocean-going vessels can operate. As a result, this bridge is the northernmost bridge on the river of truly gigantic proportions. Altogether, the bridge is nearly 2 ½ miles long and its massive truss superstructure is 4,550 ft long with a center main truss span of 1,235 ft. The Horace Wilkinson Bridge is one of the largest

    Natchez-Vidalia Bridge (Natchez, MS)

      Located about halfway between Baton Rouge and Vicksburg near the city of Natchez, the Natchez-Vidalia Bridge crosses the lower Mississippi River between southwest Mississippi and northeastern Louisiana at the city of Vidalia. This river crossing is a dual span, which creates an interesting visual effect that is atypical on the Mississippi River in general. Construction on the original bridge took place in the late 1930s in conjunction with a much larger parallel effort by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to strengthen the area’s flood protection and levee system along the Mississippi River. One of the more ambitious aspects of this plan was to relocate the city of Vidalia to a location of higher ground about one mile downriver from the original settlement. The redirection of the river through the Natchez Gorge (which necessitated the relocation of the town) and the reconstruction of the river’s levee system in the area were undertaken in the aftermath of the Great Flood of 1927, wh