Most of us take the big, beautiful Ben Franklin Bridge for granted.
We hop on, try to get across quickly, and hope its frequent traffic jams don’t delay us too long.
But the next time you look at the bridge … or drive, pedal, jog or walk across it … consider one fact: When it opened in 1926, this was the longest suspension bridge in the world!
Known originally as the Delaware River Bridge, the structure was built by a design dream team: bridge engineer, Ralph Modjeski; design engineer Leon Moisseiff; and renowned architect Paul Philippe Cret, who also designed the Rodin Museum, Rittenhouse Square and more.
After opening ceremonies by the Delaware River Joint Bridge Commission, some 100,000 people strolled across the bridge.
U.S. President Calvin Coolidge personally dedicated the structure on July 5, the same day he opened the Sesquicentennial Exposition of 1926.
Long-desired by people on both the Camden and Philadelphia sides, who wanted fast, easy access across the Delaware River, the new bridge was an instant success.
In his book “Philadelphia’s Lost Waterfront,” historian Harry Kyriakodis says the bridge attracted 35,000 vehicles a day. Initial tolls were $.25 for a car, $.15 for a horse and rider and $.30 for a horse-drawn carriage.
Today, some 100,000 vehicles and 40,000 PATCO Speedline passengers travel across it daily.
Before the bridge was built, Kyriakodis says, ferries carried 100,000 people a day across the river, departing every three minutes at peak times. But the bridge quickly put most of them out of business.
Poorest Planning: The decision by Pennsylvanian and New Jersey to start work on the Delaware River Bridge (now the Ben Franklin Bridge) in 1922 – without agreeing how to fund it. Pennsylvania wanted the bridge to be free, and paid for by taxes. New Jersey wanted tolls. Work reportedly stopped shortly before completion, and there was even talk of tearing the bridge down. The Supreme Court gave the two sides six months to solve the problem. Fortunately, leaked publicity about rampant corruption by the politically powerful Vare organization’s reported skimming of funds to award contacts to friends and family changed Pennsylvania’s mind. The agreement was amended in May 1925, and the bridge opened the following year.
7 things you may not know about the bridge:
- During construction, the joint commission rejected the name Franklin Bridge. Its successor, the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA), had more sense, renaming the span the Ben Franklin Bridge in 1956, the 250th anniversary of Franklin’s birth.
- The bridge had no speed limit when it opened, says WHYY.org. Drivers were expected to use common sense.
- The bridge’s first traffic accident occurred before it even officially opened. A driver attempting to get ahead in line ran into the back of another car. The driver was fined $25.
- Historic St. George’s United Methodist Church, America’s oldest in continuous use, is now known as “the Church that moved the bridge.” When it was slated for demolition to accommodate the bridge, church leaders protested in court. They won, and the bridge was shifted slightly southward, missing the church by just 14 feet.
- St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church was also affected by the bridge. When Fourth Street was lowered by about 15 feet to allow for the approach of the bridge, says Harry Kyriakodis, the entrance to the church also was lowered and the rectory removed
- The huge anchorages on both sides were designed not only to anchor the bridge, but also to serve mass transit trolley passengers. Each contains a tiled room with seven beautiful mosaics. But because trolley lines in New Jersey started converting to bus lines before construction was complete, the waiting rooms never opened to the public. And after the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, they never will be, says DRPA Communications Director Tim Ireland.
- Because New Jersey wanted tolls to pay for the bridge and Pennsylvania did not, says highway historian Steve Anderson, work stopped for a time. “There were even proposals to tear down the bridge,” he says. When word leaked out from Philadelphia’s City Hall that the powerful Vare organization was skimming money for the project, Pennsylvania agreed to construct tollbooths. Work resumed on the bridge a week after the story broke.
A great way to enjoy the bridge’s spectacular vistas is to use the South Walkway, which starts near 5th and Race Streets. It’s open for bikes, pedestrians and joggers.
But if you are walking, be careful and “hug” to the right to avoid speeding bikers and joggers. Some will let you know they are close by. Some won’t.
Length tower-to-tower: 1,750 ft.
Length end-to-end: 8,300 ft.
Number of lanes: 7
Height: 135 ft. above the river
Towers: 382 ft.
Years to build: 4 ½ years
Fatalities during construction: 15
This article was originally published in the Society Hill Reporter. It has been reprinted with permission.