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
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
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
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
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.
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?]