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December 12, 2012

Measure Created Shareholder-Owned New Hope Delaware Bridge Company Which Constructed Wooden Toll Bridge That Opened in 1814

Contact: Joe Donnelly (215) 862-7693 or Ethan Vickers (412) 926-5730

NEW HOPE, PA - The year is 1812. The United States is at war with Great Britain. Napolean's army is retreating in Russia. And the waltz is gaining popularity in English ballrooms despite alarmists who declare the dance form to be disgusting and immoral.

It was upon this backdrop 200 years ago today that the Pennsylvania Legislature gave final approval to a special act authorizing the creation of a private company that would later go on to build a shareholder-owned toll bridge between the Delaware River communities of New Hope, PA and Lambertville, N.J.

It took another 21 months to construct the bridge before it opened for use on September 13, 1814.  But when it opened, it immediately became a more convenient and reliable travel alternative to the ferries that previously operated between the two communities. It was the fourth bridge to carry people, horses, and livestock between the two states, opening only a few months after the Centre Bridge-Stockton crossing initiated service slightly more than 3 miles upstream.  Both bridges soon competed for travelers and commerce using the York Road linking Philadelphia and New York.

"Agitation" to construct a bridge between New Hope and Lambertville had already been underway for several years when legislative approval was finally granted in 1812. The New Jersey Legislature went first by approving the special legislative act on January 20, 1812. The concurring act on the part of the Pennsylvania Legislature was approved December 12, 1812.

This act authorized the bridge company to operate under the title of "The President and Managers of the New Hope Delaware Bridge Company," and at the same time permitted the company to engage in banking operations.

The original act provided for an authorized capital stock of $50,000 divided into 1,000 shares of $50 each, with the provision that this amount could be increased to such a sum as might be deemed advisable, providing the amount specified should not be sufficient to complete the bridge.

The act contained the provisions common to all the charters of the earlier bridges across the river: that three years after the bridge's completion, the company should lay its accounts before the Legislatures and if it should appear that the net earnings were insufficient to produce a return of 6 percent upon the invested capital, then the tolls could be increased to such amounts as would produce this rate return upon the invested capital.

In February 1813, the fledgling bridge company entered into a $50,000 contract with Lewis Wernwag, Joseph Johnson and Samuel Stackers to construct the bridge as designed by chief engineer Wernwag, a pioneering American bridge designer of that era. His design originally called for an uncovered wooden structure, but it was later outfitted with a roof and wooden sides.

In building the structure, Wernwag required all timbers to be sawed through the heart to "detect unsound wood, and to reduce the greatest width of a stick to six inches."

According to the book Bridges over the Delaware River by Frank T. Dale, Wernwag used iron bracings extensively in the structure, "a practice that was 75 years ahead of its time..."

Construction was completed September 12, 1814. The company's records state the cost of building the original bridge was $67,936.37.

The bridge remained in service until the flood of January 8, 1841, when a large portion of it was carried away and damaged to the extent of $40,000. The reconstructed bridge consisting of new wooden covered sections remained in service until October 10, 1903, when it was destroyed by the infamous "Pumpkin Flood."

The current steel Pratt truss bridge at the site also was constructed by private investors. It opened to traffic in 1904. The bridge continues in service to this day, operating on many of the original masonry piers that were constructed nearly 200 years ago.

Few of today's bridge users may realize this, but the New Hope-Lambertville crossing has operated longer as a toll bridge than it has as a non-toll bridge. Tolls were charged by private shareholders from September 13, 1814 to December 30, 1919 - a span of 105 years. The crossing was purchased by the two states on December 31, 1919 and immediately freed of tolls. It has operated as a non-toll bridge ever since - a span of 93 years.

Under public ownership, the bridge initially was maintained and operated by a predecessor agency to the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission. Upon the Commission's formal creation in December 1934, it then assumed the bridge's management and operation responsibilities.

The bridge was operated with tax revenues from the two states from December 31, 1919 to July 1, 1987, when the two states transferred ownership outright to the Commission and directed the agency to operate and maintain the bridge without tax subsidies, using a portion of the proceeds from the agency's seven toll bridges instead. This is the reason the bridge's official name is now the New Hope-Lambertville Toll-Supported Bridge.

While the crossing's 200th anniversary date won't occur until September 2014, a committee of New Hope and Lambertville history buffs has already formed to plan for the occasion by compiling educational information and a video.

About the Commission

The Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission was formed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the State of New Jersey in 1934. It operates seven toll bridges and 13 toll-supported bridges, two of which are pedestrian-only spans. The Commission is a self-supporting public-service agency that receives neither federal nor state tax dollars to finance its projects or operations. Funding for the operations, maintenance and upkeep of its bridges and related transportation facilities is solely derived from revenues collected at its toll bridges. The Commission's jurisdiction extends along the Delaware River from the Philadelphia-Bucks County line north to the New Jersey/New York border. The bridges carried more than 137.4 million cars and trucks in 2011. For more information about the Commission and its various initiatives to deliver safer and more convenient bridge travel for its customers, please see: www.drjtbc.org.

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