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History's Headlines: The Lehigh Valley's great bridge is 100 years old this month

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Dec 24 2013 02:30:53 PM CST
Updated On: Nov 18 2013 06:23:49 PM CST

History's Headlines: America on Wheels

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Ann Lalik, Gallery Director and Arts Coordinator for Penn State’s Lehigh Valley campus, has wanted to do something special for Allentown’s 8th Street Bridge (also known as the Alburtus L. Meyers Bridge) for awhile. The bridge’s 100th birthday on November 17th has presented her with the perfect opportunity.

Working with her husband, Lalik began to put together a collection of paintings of the span once hailed as “the largest and highest concrete bridge erected by a trolley company in the world.”

In one sense this was easy to do because her husband has been collecting paintings of the bridge done by local artists for more than 10 years. The exhibit, made up of 30 paintings, also includes 15 done by current artists. A color catalog of the art works will also be available.

As an artist herself, Lalik feels that the bridge itself is a work of art, despite the unfortunate state of disrepair it’s in now. “The campus and a number of Lehigh Valley people have expressed interest,” she noted recently, “so this has turned into a bit of an event.”

It undoubtedly would have pleased General Harry C. Trexler and other officials of the Lehigh Valley Transit Company that, 100 years later, the bridge they built to get the Liberty Bell trolley line to Philadelphia was still admired, long after the street car line was gone.

In many ways the 8th Street Bridge is the Lehigh Valley’s monument to the era between 1900 and 1914, which popular historian Walter Lord once called “the Good Years.” In his book of the same title, Lord notes that those years were far from perfect, since they were full of economic inequality and labor unrest. But, he said, there was a big reason they were good: “Whatever the trouble, people were sure they could fix it.”

For the Lehigh Valley and Allentown, one of the biggest “troubles” that needed to be fixed as the new 20th century dawned was transforming an industrial city that was still mired in the past. In 1900 newspapers in Hazleton sneered that Allentown could hardly call itself a city when it did not even have a mile of asphalt paved street. Apparently stung by this reproach, Allentown began the paving of local streets that year.

That same year, Allentown mayor Fred Lewis walked into the Commonwealth Building office of engineer Robert Rathbun. The tallest building in Allentown, it looked over the Little Lehigh Creek bed where the Allentown Barbed Wire Works and other industries were humming.

Rathbun’s office also offered a view of a deep valley that separated the city from what was to become its south side. “Wouldn’t it be a great thing,” Rathbun mused as he turned from his window to Lewis, “to have a bridge across that ravine?” Lewis agreed and together the two men began to wonder how they might make Rathbun’s vision reality.

Trexler was “present at the creation.” Along with Lewis, Rathbun and some other investors, Trexler was involved in forming, on September 10, 1900, the Allentown and South Allentown Bridge Co. At first everything seemed like it was going to happen swiftly. A simple, small, steel trestle located at the foot of 7th- not 8th- Street was planned. A German company laid the bridge foundations.

But with no public explanation, all work ceased. It would be 11 years before the concept would re-emerge as something completely different.

Many people believed at the time that Trexler suddenly got cold feet about the project. As all his business correspondence has disappeared, no one can prove or disprove this theory.

But in 1901, the sudden death of 40 year old Ohio trolley builder Albert Johnson bankrupted the Lehigh Valley Traction Co. that he has formed. In 1905 Trexler took over the line, brought it out of bankruptcy, and renamed it Lehigh Valley Transit.

Despite a nasty trolley strike in 1906, he and his partner Colonel Edward Young reorganized the company, and, over the next several years, restored it to a solvent footing.

Suddenly in 1911, the newspapers were full of Trexler’s plans to buy out the old bridge company. It was announced that Lehigh Valley Transit would build a new structure- a toll bridge that would unite Allentown city with the borough of South Allentown, where Trexler had extensive real estate holdings. The idea of a toll bridge did not go down easy with the frugal Pennsylvania German population, but it was finally agreed upon.

On July 12, 1912, as investigative hearings into the sinking of the Titanic were being held in Washington and London, work began on the 8th Street Bridge. It was to consist of nine 120 foot – broad arches and eight 52 ½ foot girder arches. It would be 2,650 feet long, towering 138 feet over the Little Lehigh. It was made up of 45,000 barrels of cement, 29,500 cubic yards of concrete and 1.1 million pounds of reinforced steel rods. The total cost was to be $500,000.

The work went on with a will and it was not without problems. The girder arches had to be made in one concrete piece. They were watched night and day to prevent uneven drying. And when it was done everyone admitted the Lehigh Valley and Allentown had a structure worth of any European capital or large American city.

On November 17, 1913 with the Allentown Band playing the Star Spangled Banner, the bridge was officially dedicated. Albertus Meyers then a young band member was among them.

The years have not always been kind to the old bridge. But its beauty though faded is undeniable.