Some fascinating views from a bridge not far away [Commentary]

Ever since I took my first intercity trip on a train from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., many, many years ago, I've held a certain fascination for the bridge on which our train crossed the Susquehanna River.

The possibility of that same bridge being replaced in the next 10 years or so has stirred some of those memories of past trips over it and caused me to think quite a bit about the history of this and all the bridges crossing the Susquehanna in our area, as well as what the replacement might eventually look like.

This first trip over what for me will always be the Pennsylvania Railroad's bridge occurred in the early summer of 1954, just after I completed kindergarten. My mother and I boarded the train to travel south to visit her parents.

It was exciting to ride in a big train from 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. We had made the trip from our home to my grandparents home many times by automobile, but never by train.

It was a big deal for me enough that I remember the train was air-conditioned and had a dining car, although we were content to buy sandwiches, sodas and candy from one of the porters who sold them car-to-car.

Not long out of Wilmington, Del., I remember looking out the window to my left and seeing nothing but water and sky, or at least that was the sensation. I looked down and it was like the train was just suspended over the water. You couldn't see anything else – no railings, no structure, nothing except the catenary poles whizzing by as our coach rocked back and forth.

It was all pretty scary, actually, but as those big GGI locomotives probably traveled 60 or 70 miles an hour over the bridge in those days, it was all over in less than a minute, and then we were speeding along atop Havre de Grace, which was a place I knew nothing about at the time.

As we did not return by train on this particular trip, having met up with my father returning north form summer Marine Reserves duty at Parris Island, it would be another three years before I would cross the bridge again, but the occasion would be just as memorable.

In May 1957, my grandfather, who was the son of a lifelong railroader, took me on a rail excursion from Philadelphia to the annual Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester, Va.

Our special train was outfitted with a snack bar in a baggage car whose doors were open and slats of wood placed over the opening, so you could look out as we traveled along

Me and a kid who was a couple of years older and who was one of my grandfather's dental patients were in the baggage car when somebody said we were passing a place called Perryville and told us we should go over by the door.

And so, lo and behold, I stood peering out between two of the slats at the sky and the river and the bay beyond as we rumbled across that big bridge again. This train, however, was a bit slower than the one from my previous trip, and the two of us got a remarkable view for a couple of minutes. I couldn't wait to tell my grandfather about it when I returned to my seat in the coach.

In subsequent car trips across the Route 40 bridge (now the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge), the railroad bridges on either side seemed much higher, when in reality neither probably was – the distance between us and them made it seem so, however. (I was always fascinated by that highway bridge, too, and all these years later I still consider it one of the most magnificent looking spans I have seen.)

Certainly I was surprised when I made my first actual trip into Havre de Grace around 1971 and drove under the old Pennsy bridge where it crosses Legion Square and realized it probably wasn't as high as I thought. Also coming as a surprise was that it is a drawbridge (or swing drawbridge, actually), albeit one that seldom ever opened and when it did, the entire railroad came to a standstill.

Covering Havre de Grace in the early and mid-1970s, I met people whose families had settled in the town after arriving in 1904-06 to work on the construction of the railroad bridge, which was a massive undertaking for those times. All the city's bridges have fascinating backstories, far too involved to explore in this column, unfortunately.

The idea of replacing the Pennsy, or I guess more correctly Amtrak, bridge with a wider and high span as is being discussed, will most likely have a major impact on both Havre de Grace and Perryville.

For one thing, the railroad can't just shut down the existing bridge and build a new one in its place. It will have to first build the new one and then dismantle the old one, sort of like what happened with the original bridge was replaced by the one you see now. I say sort of because that original bridge became a privately owned highway bridge for another four decades before it was finally closed and removed at the start of World War II – leaving the pilings still standing across the river.

As the railroad is elevated through much of Havre de Grace and part way through Perryville, there are going to be all kinds of crazy logistics involved, and my guess is the faces of both towns will change dramatically.

Railroad representatives say the bridge has long passed its useful life. Even though it is still strong enough to handle the trains, high-speed passenger trains have to slow down to cross it and with only two tracks, the bridge is a bottleneck and in the way of improving both intercity and commuter train travel in our region. So, make way for progress to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

If the old bridge goes away in my lifetime, I will bid a fond farewell, knowing it's been there all these years and I was fortunate both to ride across it in an open baggage car and in the cab of a locomotive some years later and even walked out on it maybe a hundred or so feet from the Perryville side. (Don't ask and don't try it!)

Maybe the old bridge will be kept for hikers. There's been some talk in that regard, or maybe it will go the way of its predecessor, with just the stone block piers left behind. Whatever happens, the bridge has served many generations well. We should all be fortunate enough to lead such wonderfully productive lives.

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