RIEGELSVILLE, PA – The 100th anniversary of the public acquisition and freeing of the iconic and structurally unique Riegelsville Toll-Supported Bridge is nigh.
The former Riegelsville Delaware Bridge Company suspended toll collections on January 1, 1923 due to an impending sale of the bridge to the states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The states formally purchased the bridge three days later. The sale price was $50,000, with each state providing matching $25,000 checks to complete the transaction. The bridge purchase had been arranged by the former Joint Commission for Elimination of Toll Bridges – Pennsylvania-New Jersey (the Joint Commission), the predecessor agency to the current Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission.
It was the eighth former privately owned toll bridge along the river to pass into public ownership. Prior purchases of private toll bridges were at Lower Trenton (1918); Point Pleasant-Byram (1919); New Hope-Lambertville (1919-20); Northampton Street (1921); Milford-Montague (1922); Washington Crossing (1922); and Yardley-Wilburtha (1922).
The Riegelsville Delaware Bridge Co. might have been motivated by the former Easton Delaware Bridge Company’s 1921 sale of its Northampton Street Bridge eight miles north between Easton, PA. and Phillipsburg, N.J.
The Joint Commission originally offered $48,000 for the Riegelsville Bridge. The Riegelsville Delaware Bridge Co. rejected the offer. In summer 1922, the bridge company’s president, B.F. Fackenthal, Jr., wrote to the Commission and pitched a $52,000 price for the bridge. The Joint Commission voted at its September 13, 1922 meeting to authorize a $50,000 counteroffer, which Fackenthal and the other company directors accepted at a meeting held October 2, 1922.
The bridge’s sale was transacted January 4, 1923 in Trenton, N.J. at the State House office of Judge William Newcorn, a New Jersey assistant attorney general (note: his first name was Judge). The bridge company received New Jersey’s $25,000 check at the property closing. Pennsylvania mailed its matching $25,000 check directly to the bridge company.
The bridge company was represented at the closing by Fackenthal and the company’s attorney, William H. Walters. Interestingly, Walters had been the Easton Delaware Bridge Company’s attorney for the 1921 Northampton Street Bridge sale.
After the Riegelsville Bridge’s property closing, the bridge’s venerable toll taker – Benjamin Transue – was notified to continue working at the location to protect the structure from overweight vehicles and speeders. Transue later became a Joint Commission employee. Water and electrical utilities carried by the bridge also were allowed to continue after the bridge sale.
The newly acquired bridge apparently needed repairs and repainting within a few months of its purchase by the two states. The members of the Joint Commission voted at their April 20, 1923 meeting to repaint the structure and make “incidental repairs” to the bridge, the former adjoining toll house, and the approaches. This included removal of a toll gate on the New Jersey side. The bridge crossing was outfitted with telephone service later in 1923.
The Joint Commission operated the bridge on behalf of the two states for almost 12 years. The costs were covered by matching annual tax subsidies that New Jersey and Pennsylvania provided to the Joint Commission.
In late December 1934, the two states disbanded the old Joint Commission and replaced it with a newly established Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission (DRJTBC). The states created the DRJTBC to address the need for new, larger highway-speed toll bridges along the river. A federal compact for the DRJTBC was approved by Congress in August 1935.
The DRJTBC operated and maintained the bridge with annual tax subsidies from the two states for over 52 years. This funding arrangement ended on July 1, 1987, when the states transferred ownership of the bridge outright to the DRJTBC. Under federal Compact revisions the states completed in 1985 and Congress approved in April 1987, the DRJTBC was directed to henceforth use a portion of its toll bridge proceeds to fund the Riegelsville Bridge.
The bridge is a rare multi-catenary vehicular suspension bridge. It is one of two DJRTBC bridges – the other being the Lumberville-Raven Rock Pedestrian Bridge – designed and constructed by the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company of New York. The website HistoricBridges.org rates the bridge 8 out of 10 for both national and local significance, describing the structure as follows:
This bridge is a very unique and historically significant bridge. Its design is unusual because it contains multiple, relatively short suspension spans. Most suspension bridges that are familiar today are much larger bridges that contain only two suspension towers. This bridge contains four. This bridge has unusual and original floor beams that have post-tension bars built underneath the main built-up beams. Riegelsville Bridge also includes lightweight double-warren stiffening truss. The bridge is also noteworthy and significant for association with the bridge company formed by one of the most famous suspension bridge builders, John Roebling.
The current bridge was constructed after a prior wooden covered bridge was destroyed in the Delaware River “Pumpkin Flood” of October 9-11, 1903. The Roebling steel bridge was completed and opened to traffic April 18, 1904.
The bridge holds the distinction of being the last DRJTBC road bridge to have a timber-plank floor. The bridge was outfitted with a steel open-grid roadway deck in 1984.
The structure’s total length is 580 feet 10 inches. Each of the bridge’s three spans vary in length. The clear roadway width is 15 feet, 11 inches between steel rub rails. The two travel lanes are each 7 feet, 11-1/2 inches wide. The bridge has a three-ton weight limit.
Composite-plank sidewalks flank the roadway deck on the bridge’s upstream and downstream sides. The bridge is the Delaware River crossing point for the envisioned Highlands Trail, a long-distance path extending from the New York-Connecticut border to the Pennsylvania Highlands Trail Network. (The trail currently covers 180 miles between the Hudson and Delaware rivers.) Pennsylvania’s Delaware Canal towpath is also a short distance away from the Riegelsville Bridge.
The bridge was last rehabilitated in 2010. Its national bridge standard rating was upgraded from structurally deficient to functionally obsolete after that project.
The bridge’s speed limit is 15 MPH. Bicycles are prohibited from crossing on the bridge’s vehicular roadway deck. Bicycle riders must dismount and walk across one of the bridge’s walkways. The DRJTBC posts bridge monitors at the bridge on a 24/7 basis to prevent crossings of overweight/oversized vehicles.
Additional River Crossing History
The first bridge at this location was a three-span covered wooden structure. It was built by Solon Chapin, an Easton contractor who erected several covered bridges along the Delaware River in the middle part of the 19th century. James Madison Porter, an Easton businessman and politician who was among the founders of Lafayette College in 1832, partnered with Chapin in the design and construction of the bridge.
The bridge was conceived, financed and operated by the Riegelsville Delaware Bridge Co., a shareholder-owned concern established in 1836. New Jersey enacted the bridge company’s enabling legislation on December 19, 1835. Pennsylvania enacted its companion legislation on March 22, 1836.
A central figure in the company’s creation appears to be Benjamin Riegel, a miller and enterprising businessman. In 1806, Riegel acquired the ferry concession (Shanks Ferry) near the eventual site of the bridge. Both sides of the river soon became known as Riegelsville owing to his ferry operation. (Note: Riegelsville, PA. was part of Durham Township throughout the 19th Century. Riegelsville Borough, was not incorporated as a distinct Pennsylvania municipal entity until 1916.)
It’s likely that Riegel was the leading proponent of the envisioned bridge. He was a founding officer of the Riegelsville Delaware Bridge Company, when it was chartered in 1836. New Jersey’s bridge company legislation listed Riegel among the individuals authorized to subscribe shareholders in that state. Pennsylvania’s corresponding legislation authorized Riegel’s son, Jesse, to subscribe bridge company shareholders in that state. Benjamin Riegel also served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives at the time of the bridge company’s formation. (Note: Both the New Jersey and Pennsylvania legislative measures spelled Riegel as “Reigle” and Riegelsville as “Reiglesville” and were enacted with the errors uncorrected.)
Construction of the first bridge was completed and opened as a tolled private enterprise on December 15, 1837. Tolls would have been charged for livestock, carts, carriages, pedestrians and — later — bicyclists and motorized vehicles. The first bridge cost $18,900 to construct and was a Burr-truss-arch design with dual cartways and walkways, according to a historical account by B.F. Fackenthal, who was the bridge’s last president in 1923.
The span on the New Jersey side was destroyed in the “Bridges Freshet” of January 8, 1841. Fackenthal’s historical account says the reconstruction of the lost span cost $9,000 and the work was again done by Chapin. (It’s unclear when the reconstructed bridge reopened.)
The bridge remained in service until October 10, 1903, when the center span and the adjoining span on the New Jersey side were washed away. The span on the Pennsylvania side also sustained damage and later collapsed. (Portions of the bridge that washed downstream were later used to reconstruct a portion of the bridge at Milford, N.J. that also was partially destroyed in the 1903 flood.)
The Riegelsville Delaware Bridge Co. acted quickly to replace its decimated bridge. It hired the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company to erect a multi-catenary steel-wire-rope suspension superstructure on the masonry abutments and piers that had been constructed for the former wooden bridge in 1836 and 1837. The costs of construction — including repairs to and raising the heights of the bridge’s piers — was $29,072.25, according to Fackenthal. The new bridge opened April 18, 1904. It is the third oldest bridge superstructure in the Commission’s network; only the Calhoun Street Bridge between Trenton, N.J. and Morrisville, PA. and the Northampton Street Bridge are older.
The Riegelsville Delaware Bridge Co. operated its new steel suspension bridge as a tolled crossing — just like its covered, wooden predecessor bridge – for almost 19 years. The bridge’s pier nearest the Pennsylvania approach was severely damaged during a flood in 1936; it was rebuilt using reinforced concrete. The historic 1955 river flood slightly damaged the bridge, but it was closed only three days — Aug. 19-21, 1955.