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The bridge to everywhere

Memories of home

By CHRISTOPHER FREY

Recently a New York Times piece on The Society for Industrial Archeology caught my eye because I have two friends who are card-carrying members of this obscure group of folks who venerate and celebrate little known public and private structures. The article followed these knowledgeable nerds on a tour of a legendary steam plant in Brooklyn and captured the excitement and enthusiasm that these “rivetheads” can generate when they get their inside looks at another example of the dwindling number of older technology sites in America.

Let me confess; there are still a few common ordinary works of man that can raise a frisson of excitement in me too—and I don’t even own a plastic pocket protector. One of these structures is the soon-to-be-replaced Barryville-Shohola Bridge, and there is no way we can let that span be reduced to scrap metal relics without paying homage to its place in our hearts.

Okay, so it’s not the Sphinx and it’s not the Great Wall of China. In fact, as Delaware River spans go, it is not even half as important historically as the Roebling Aqueduct, just a few miles upstream. But wait just a New York minute—this is my bridge, damn it. And it’s Bryon’s bridge and Joey’s bridge, Rolf’s bridge and Jimmy’s bridge. It’s Pete Nelson’s bridge and Fred Reber’s bridge.

You see, we were the Boys of Barryville and there was a time when we owned that bridge.

At least one of these numbskulls actually laced up his PF Flyers and inched his way up across and down one of the spans. He stood up straight and walked right into our memories as he took the dare and collected the quarters we bet him that he wouldn’t do it.

No one that I know ever accepted the challenge to jump off the bridge into the river. The most daring thing most of us did was to ignite the fuses and watch the fun as we tossed potent “ash can” firecrackers into the river below. We were instantly rewarded with waterspout explosions worthy of a low budget action film special effects department.

Oh, how we used that bridge! We fished from the bridge, we flung rocks from the bridge, we launched balsa wood airplanes from the bridge, we spit wads of Double Bubble from the bridge, and we male-bonded with the bridge. The huge rivets, the cross members, the crumbling (even then) cement abutments, and the drainage holes that guided many a stone down to the river below—they all became as familiar to us as the bases on our wiffle ball field and the comic book section at Eckhardt’s store.

We loved the pitch and the tone of the vibrating steel as we clanged rocks against the bridge uprights and made the weird music echo off the nearby cliffs. We struggled to disguise our handwriting as we scrawled our feeble attempts at graffiti, the guilt clutching at us like the little pincers of the bridge’s spiders that diligently decorated the span with their webs just so they could capture dewdrops and display them for us on a summer morning.

As it is supposed to do, the bridge linked our little river towns together; viewed through the hazy gauze of nostalgia, it seems as though there were a lot more reasons to shuttle between Shohola and Barryville then. We rode our bikes over the bridge to play golf at Megargel’s par 3 course; we walked over to play on the Erie locomotives and cabooses; some of us ran over when we were late for Mass at St. Ann’s.

Sometimes the bridge linked us to money. In the winter, we trudged back across the bridge from our occasional jobs as pin boys in Rohman’s bowling alleys, getting home just in time to wash off the Dickensian filth and second hand smoke, ignore our homework and count out the crumpled dollar bills that got us through until the city folk came back in July to green up our valley.

Sometimes the bridge linked us to history. As we clambered down the hillside on the PA side of the bridge to play baseball in the field, we were joined by the ghost of Zane Grey who had also swung a bat there many years before. Grey did not have the luxury of scrambling under the span to hide from a sudden rainstorm like we did since his games predated the bridge by quite a few decades.

Sometimes the bridge linked us to food. The cognoscenti knew that the largest, juiciest blackberries this side of Smuckerville, Ohio grew on the slopes behind the Shohola railroad depot. On berry picking days we gleefully left black handprints on the bridge girders on the way back to Barryville—back to our extra special summer desserts, imported from exotic Pennsyltucky.

Sometimes the bridge linked us to salvation. Between the sacraments administered to some of us at St. Ann’s and the services available to others at St. Jacobi’s, the steel span brought us closer to God. Summer religious school found us being whisked across the bridge in Wilson’s impossibly luxurious Packard taxicabs—where we learned the 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not chew gum while sitting in the jump seats.

Most of the time, the bridge was a vital link in the delivery system of tourists to the Town of Highland. The Erie Railroad wheezed up from Hoboken and Jersey City, its passenger cars bursting at their riveted seams with city folk eager for our fresh air and wholesome hospitality. Resort owners and the Wilson Taxi fleet met them and caravanned across the bridge on the final leg of the annual vacation trip. I would like to think that thousands of visitors began to breathe easier as they tucked under the Erie overpass and let our shiny little bridge welcome them.

 “Hey, Pollyanna, tone down the schmaltz.” you say? Okay, I know that the bridge also was a passage to pain for some in the years when the drinking age disparity between New York and Pennsylvania meant that dozens of cars flowed across it being driven by the under-age and over-served. Yes, the cement abutments did not always just crumble on their own.

Indeed, sometimes the bridge linked us to genuine sadness, and—once—to the cinematic version. Recently I caught a cable TV presentation of “Heavy”, the haunting film made in Barryville and surrounding towns a few years ago. Several touching scenes involved the main character driving slowly across the bridge—our bridge—with those silent looming steel uprights slowly flickering past his car window, calibrating his isolation and longing.

The bridge can—and did—evoke the whole spectrum of emotions. In case you are wondering how strong that structure is, ask anyone who was in town in 1955, when the Delaware flooded its banks and chased us to the hills. Ask anyone who gingerly inched his way out to the PA/NY line to gape open-mouthed at the brown rage just a short spit below the bridge roadway. Ask anyone who felt the span shudder when the outsized flotsam borne by the ferocious current smashed into the pillars. Roebling, Schmoebling—this is one tough bridge.

But tough doesn’t mean perpetual. We understand the DOT has to ensure our safety, and we accept the inevitable. 

So to the engineers and the construction crews who will soon be flocking to our bridge—blueprints and OSHA handbooks tucked under their arms: All we ask is that you appreciate the Barryville-Shohola bridge for what it has been for our towns—the focal point, a monument, maybe even a guidepost for the bald eagles who have made it back and who now soar serenely over its rusting arches.

There is still no chapter of The Society for Industrial Archeology on the banks of the Delaware—but there are a lot of bridge groupies here who hope you pat those girders one last time for us just before you spark up your torches and begin to slice it up and cart away our connection.

Our bridge, of course, won’t feel a thing. But we will.

[Author’s note: To our Pennsylvania neighbors—I know you believe it to be the Shohola-Barryville Bridge, but you got the Erie Depot, Rohman’s and the caboose, so why quibble?]


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