Rehab for Historic Landmark in Preliminary Phase

Photo of historic bridge courtesy of Joseph Phillips, Falcon Photo & Oils

Photo of historic bridge courtesy of Joseph Phillips, Falcon Photo & Oils

Brownsville is a town favored with several historic landmarks and even more historic structures. Both the Flatiron Building and Nemacolin Castle are well known in the area, but one perhaps even more important structure, from a historical point of view, seems to have a lot less name recognition. That may change after the completion of a rehab project in the planning process by the state Department of Transportation.

Located on the Monongahela River, Brownsville can claim two major bridges that join the town to Washington County across the river. But it’s the much smaller Dunlap’s Creek Bridge with its 80-foot span along Market Street that history buffs should relish. The bridge, constructed between 1836 and 1839, is the first all cast-iron bridge in the United States.

“The bridge is the first of its type in the nation, and its architectural design doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” said Marc Henshaw, Ph.D., an industrial archaeologist with Michael Baker Engineering.

Now a national historic landmark, the bridge is certified as a breakthrough in technology by the American Society of Materials International, the same certification bestowed on the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower.

For years, the bridge rested in relative obscurity until 2012 when Fayette County began demolishing surrounding derelict properties in the downtown corridor and rediscovered the structure of the bridge.

“For years, people couldn’t see the bridge because it was obscured by the buildings and an overgrowth of weeds along the creek bank,” Henshaw said.

Due to the bridge’s huge historic relevance, the state’s Department of Transportation decided to “rehab” the structure. Gary Ferrari, project manager in the Uniontown Penn DOT Office, said that so far the department has advertised and solicited for statements of interest from design consultants, a process that resulted in the selection of the Pittsburgh office of TranSystems. Currently, $997,000 is allocated for the preliminary engineering programming studies.

To make sure the historic integrity of the bridge remains intact during the rehab project, PennDOT will be working with preservation consultants. The department is also in the very early stages of selecting a contractor to do the rehab work, which has to go through the standard bidding process.

“Right now, the project is in its very preliminary stages, and the cost of the project and its start or completion dates have yet to be determined,” Ferrari said. Note: In an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette” dated September 4, 2014, PennDOT provided a ballpark figure of $3.7 million for the bridge rehab project.

Through the years, at least three bridges have been built on the site over Dunlap’s Creek prior to the cast iron bridge. The first washed away in 1808 during a flood. Brownsville resident, Judge James Findley, considered the father of suspension bridges, built a second chain suspension bridge over the creek. Unfortunately, it collapsed in 1820 when a wagon and six horses tried to cross it during a heavy snowstorm.

A third wooden structure was eventually built but needed replacement by 1832.

When the federal government decided to replace bridges along the National Road that same year, the task was given to Captain Richard Delafield, the supervising officer in the Army Corps of Engineers and a West Point graduate. The Dunlap Creek Bridge was one of the bridges that came under his supervision.

To build the cast iron bridge in Brownsville through which the National Road ran, Delafield chose foundry owner, John Snowden, a blacksmith immigrant from Yorkshire, England, who carried his trade with him to the New World.

“When Snowden moved to Brownsville, a man named William Hogg hired him to make a cast iron stove,” Henshaw said. “Hogg liked the stove so much he ended up financing Snowden’s foundry.”

Snowden opened the foundry in 1824, and it continued to operate until 1889. Henshaw attributes its demise to the closing of the frontier, where the demand for his foundry production was greatest, and competition from the steel industry.

Perhaps Snowden’s greatest claim to fame is the cast iron bridge, which was built at a cost of $39, 811.63 and officially dedicated on July 4, 1839. In use to this day, the bridge is still considered structurally sound and has no posted weight limits.

“I can only imagine how many vehicles must have passed over it since 1839,” Henshaw said. “In Europe, historic structures like these have been saved and restored. When you renovate, these structures bring with them an element of tourism. While the first cast iron bridge was built in 1781 in Coalbrookdale, England, the Brownsville bridge has a structure that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world that I know of. I don’t know why Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh don’t bring their engineering students to Brownsville to study it.”
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Story by Dave Zuchowski for Pennsylvania Bridges