Bollman Bridge

somerset | Meyersdale, PA Mile 30.3

The Nuts & Bolts: Bollman Bridge

  • 81 feet long by 13.1 feet wide, Warren truss iron bridge
  • Original Construction: completed in 1871, moved to Somerset County to be used as a vehicular bridge in 1910. Moved again in May 2006, then transported and placed along the GAP in the summer of 2007.
  • Total Cost: $274,000
  • Engineer: EADS Group
  • Contractor(s): Lycoming Supply, Adam Eidemiller, Earl Miller & Sons, SCRTA Volunteers, Sheesley Construction, Bryce Saylor & Sons
  • Project Manager: Ronald “Rhody” Rhodomoyer

It was telling that when a reporter from the local newspaper asked Brett Hollern, the Somerset County Tail Coordinator, about the morning’s events, the first words out of his mouth were “I’m so relieved.” Madolin Edwards, a staff writer for the Daily American, was standing by the side of Scratch Hill Road near Meyersdale, PA, to watch as two cranes lowered the historic, 30-ton Bollman Bridge onto its new abutments.[1] The morning of July 18, 2007 was overcast and cool for summer, so a small group had gathered to watch the tense, exciting feat of construction that would, by summer’s end, carry bicyclists on the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) between the Keystone Viaduct and Meyersdale.[2]

It was an important day for the trail. The bridge resolved a dangerous problem: it would take riders over, instead of across, the traffic on Scratch Hill Road. It also added a beautiful architectural feature to the trail. The bridge would become one of the most-photographed landmarks along the GAP.

It was just as important a day, however, for the bridge itself. By recycling this historic structure, the GAP gave the Wills Creek Bollman Bridge a third life. This outcome was not inevitable. Many people had to fight to preserve the structure and find funding to move it from where it stood for 96 years, over the CSX railroad tracks by the Petenbrink family’s farm, to Scratch Hill Road. There was also concern that the bridge would not survive the disassembly and reassembly required to safely move it.

After 45 tense minutes, the bridge was safely in place—bringing a five-year process to the final stage of completion. All that remained was for volunteers to install new decking, and for trail to be built to and from the span. Had the day not gone according to plan—had the bridge fractured in the air, or the measurements of the bridge’s support been off—it would be a costly setback, in time and money. That’s why, when Edwards asked Hollern for a statement afterwards, he expressed his relief: “I am so relieved and glad everybody stuck with it through the process. I’m so glad for the cooperation of the local community, Summit Township supervisors, county commissioners and PennDOT. I’m so relieved.”[3]

*           *           *

When it was first built, no one called it the Bollman Bridge. It was a fairly simple railroad bridge, wide enough for one track, and it carried trains on the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad’s Pittsburgh Branch over Wills Creek[4] in Bedford County, Pennsylvania.[5] People may have called it the Wills Creek Bridge, or referred to it by whatever number B&O assigned it (bridge six, for example), but at the time of its creation in 1871 there was nothing particularly special about the bridge. It was just one of the many bridges that engineer Wendel Bollman designed for the railroad—seven of which were on the B&O’s Pittsburgh Branch.[6] It took a century, and the destruction of most of Bollman’s railroad bridges, for it to earn special recognition as a Bollman bridge.

Bollman was a self-taught bridge engineer. A carpenter by training, he was hired by the B&O in 1937 to help them rebuild and reinforce a bridge over the Potomac River near his hometown of Baltimore. The railroad was then in its infancy; it was chartered in 1827 and began operations in 1830 as the first common carrier railroad in the United States.[7] Trains were pulled down the 13 miles of track between Baltimore and Ellicott City by horses, but within a few years steam engines were powering locomotives which could transport passengers and freight longer distances in less time. The B&O rapidly expanded, requiring more bridges.[8]

The quality of Bollman’s work on the Potomac bridge led to his promotion to bridge foreman. For the next decade he designed and oversaw the construction of wooden bridges. It wasn’t until 1949, when a German-educated civil engineer named Albert Fink came to work for the railroad, that Bollman began to experiment with a relatively new material: iron. The advantage of cast and wrought iron was its durability; iron bridges long outlasted wooden bridges, which needed to be replaced every 10-15 years.[9]

Bollman would patent his own suspension truss design in 1852. To justify his innovation, he wrote in his patent application that “My improvement consists in the mode of bracing bridges, and constructing the trusses, by which I carry the whole load upon the bridge, at any given point at the center or either side thereof directly back to the abutments, and at the same time retain all the forces of thrust and tension within the truss frame, resting the weight merely upon abutments or piers, without any anchors or other similar device.”[10] In effect, these bridges could be pre-built in a workshop, freighted down the tracks, and quickly and cheaply installed as the railroad expanded.[11] Although most of the bridges Bollman built for the B&O used this design—even after Bollman left the railroad and founded W. Bollman and Company in 1858—the Wills Creek Bridge used a much simpler Warren truss design.

Looking at the bridge from the side, the diagonal posts and ties make the trapezoid-shaped truss look like it’s assembled from three equilateral and two inverted triangles. It’s a simple construction of simple shapes when seen from this perspective. However, when approached on either end the bridge appears beautiful and ornate. The end posts are six-sided, a hexagonal design called the Phoenix column. In the corners where the bridge’s end posts meet the top bracing, Bollman included triangular-shaped brackets made of cast iron—they resemble spiderwebs in their shape but their perforated design looks more like lace. The large three-leaf clovers in the corners give the design a floral appearance. The contrast of severe angles, iron beams, and floral-lace brackets lends the bridge an air of graceful strength.

Even though it is not an example of the Bollman truss, the Wills Creek Bridge is historically important because it was one of the few bridges that Bollman built that still exists—and is one of the few remaining bridges in the country that uses a Phoenix column. Most of his bridges were replaced in the early twentieth century because cast and wrought iron could not support the weight of new, heavier trains and their cargo.[12] The Wills Creek Bridge survived because it was repurposed as a vehicular bridge. Around 1910, the railroad lifted it from above Wills Creek and moved it to Somerset County, just northwest of Meyersdale, in Summit Township. They placed it above their tracks to allow the Petenbrink family to connect their farm to a local road. That’s where the bridge remained for 96 years.[13]

*           *           *

While it carried the Petenbrink’s trucks and tractors over the railroad, the trains passing beneath it went from carrying the logo of the B&O to the Chessie System, and then CSX.[14] With the passing cars, and trains, and years, the wooden cribbing holding up the bridge began to collapse.[15] No one wanted to maintain the old structure—the Petenbrinks had an alternative road they were using to access their farmland, and neither the township, county, nor CSX wanted the responsibility for it because it would mean paying for an expensive rehabilitation of a hardly-used bridge.[16] By 1999, state inspectors determined it was structurally unsound, and in January of 2000 the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) closed the bridge to traffic.[17]

CSX and the PUC wanted to demolish the bridge because it was deemed a safety hazard, but advocates scrambled to save the truss because of its historic value—it had been added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) led the state’s preservation effort, and the regional District 9-0 office made saving the rare historic transportation landmark a top priority. Kara Russell and Jonathan Daily, architectural historians for PennDOT’s Cultural Resources Management Program (PennDOT CRM), hoped to repurpose the Wills Creek Bollman Bridge through the agency’s fledgling bridge marketing program, which aimed to save examples of Pennsylvania’s rare historic bridges for future generations.[18] Residents of Summit Township like Sharon Ackerman also clambered to save the bridge, and at meetings of the township supervisors they argued for its preservation.[19]

Although no one recalls exactly who reached out to the Allegheny Trail Alliance (ATA) nor when, PennDOT CRM did maintain strong relationships with trail groups and it’s likely that in 2002 Russell and Daily offered several trails the opportunity to acquire the Bollman Bridge.[20] The ATA also could have learned about the bridge from PennDOT’s environmental manager for District 9, Dain Davis, who was working to mitigate any impact on historical sites that were in the way of the construction of U.S. 219. Davis may have reached out to Brett Hollern to talk up the bridge and convince the trail to repurpose it.[21]

At the same time these conversations were happening, Hollern was trying to solve another problem: how to get the trail across nearby Scratch Hill Road. The old railroad tracks were at a higher grade than the street below, and trains used to cross the road over a culvert. At street level “The Arch,” as the culvert was called, looked “[like] a subway – a one lane, beep your horn [tunnel],” as Hollern described it.[22] The PUC ordered the removal of the “The Arch” for the same reason as the bridge: it was unsafe. The problem was that without the culvert the trail would have to slope down to the level of the road, which riders would have to cross before biking uphill to return to the trail grade.[23] This would make this section safer for cars, which would no longer need to take turns passing through a narrow tunnel, but for riders it would be more dangerous and more difficult.

The ATA soon realized that the opportunity to acquire the Bollman Bridge might also be their opportunity to prevent an at-grade crossing at Scratch Hill Road. The ATA first discussed acquiring the Bollman Bridge at their board meeting in November, 2002. Hollern led off his report to the board with the announcement that efforts were being made to save the truss, but noted, “There is a meeting scheduled with PennDOT on November 21st, and there are PUC issues involved.”[24] By the end of the month, the Somerset County Rails to Trails Association (SCRTA), with strong advocacy from their president Hank Parke, was contemplating if it could be used at another crossing—Rockwood— where the overhead bridge had been removed years before, therefore necessitating an at-grade crossing.

Although the ATA quickly realized that the truss was too short for the crossing at Rockwood and better suited for Scratch Hill, it would be a year before the trail could officially save the bridge. Problems emerged immediately after the November meeting with PennDOT. “The question now has become whose responsibility it is to remove the bridge,” Somerset County Solicitor Dan Rullo told the Tribune-Democrat.[25] Dain Davis was instrumental in negotiating a financial agreement between PennDOT, CSX, Summit Township, and the trail, but it took a long time.[26] Fifteen months later, in February of 2004, Rullo told the same reporter that although “There have been 10 separate continuances of this while the PUC judge has allowed us to work through this,” PennDOT had agreed to pay 80 percent of the costs to move the bridge off the tracks, and CSX and Summit Township had committed to covering the remaining costs. The ATA agreed to pay for the move to Scratch Hill Road.[27]

*           *           *

Finally, on May 9, 2006, a 350-ton crane lifted the truss off the railroad tracks. “We have been trying to get it moved for three years,” Hollern told a local reporter.[28] There had been bureaucratic hurdles to overcome, and a plan needed to be made: how would they safely and affordably remove, transport, and rebuild the Bollman Bridge? After some convincing by Linda M. Boxx, Rolland “Rhody” Rhodomoyer was hired to be the project manager. While they waited for the necessary government approvals, Rhodomoyer began finding experts who could help him.

First he found a team of experienced construction professionals from Lycoming Supply to remove the bridge from above the CSX tracks. A year before the move, the company’s structural engineer Roger Evans, foreman Steve Stine, and Vice President Bud Williams traveled to Summit Township to see what they would be dealing with. “We took a lot of pictures and measurements,” Williams told the Daily American’s Judy D.J. Ellich, and they determined that the bridge weighed 100,000 pounds (50 tons). Lycoming Supply removed the bridge’s wooden decking and hand rails to reduce the weight, but that created a new problem: how much did the bridge weigh now that it had been stripped down? That measurement was not as easy to figure out. The crew brought in a special scale from Washington State, but it didn’t work. Next, they rolled a small crane with a digital scale up to the bridge. It raised one side of the truss very carefully and determined that the bridge now weighed a svelte 60,000 pounds (30 tons).[29]

After all that work, it took only 25 minutes for crane operator Bob Beadling to lift the truss off its “moss-covered wooden foundation” and onto wooden blocks in a corn field alongside the tracks.[30] “It picked up perfectly,” Beadling told Ellich, but Rhodomoyer remembers that as the bridge came off its abutments, “I saw [it] just flex and said, ‘oh my God.’ Especially if it [collapsed] on the tracks—that’s what I was really scared about.”[31] The 135-year-old bridge held together, and afterwards Rhodomoyer was reported saying that moving a historic structure “is a little like gambling. You don’t have a problem when you are winning.”[32]

Next, Rhodomoyer recognized that he needed an expert to tackle the challenge of moving the bridge to its new home. “I got a hold of a bunch of people, I try and get somebody that would bite on it,” he remembers. “Nobody would bite on moving it.” Finally, he called Earl Miller, a house mover from Bedford, and told him, “You’re the only guy that can do this.” When Miller replied, “Well, do you think so?,” Rhodomeyer declared “I know so. You’re the only guy who can do it.”[33] Miller took the job.

To move the bridge, it first had to be disassembled—that is, after the team took extensive photographs to show what the bridge looked like when it came off the tracks. In April of 2007 Miller’s team used flatbeds to truck the parts to the parking lot of Meyersdale’s restored train station; even in parts it took up the entire road, Rhodomoyer remembers.[34] Then a crane was rolled into the lot to hold up the heavy truss posts and beams so they could be put back together.

“When that was done,” Rhodomoyer recollects, “we had to put piling in and, rather than pouring big abutments … we had a place in state parks … that used to get steel from the military. And, they had more steel than the military did. And, they were giving it to us.” With Earl Miller’s help, they drove up to Clearfield to get the steel and then brought it back to Scratch Hill Road. With a pile driver from Sheesley Construction and a crane from Bryce Saylor & Sons holding the steel upright, “the piling were driven into the ground.” When four parallel pilings were in on each side, “there was a cap beam put on [them]. And then, that’s where the bridge sat.”[35]

At 8:00 AM on July 17, the time that the two cranes were due to arrive, only one was parked beside the newly-driven piers. It was to have been the big day; the Bollman Bridge was to be lifted onto the trail. Construction workers, trail builders, and members of the press gathered by the side of the road to wait. When the second crane arrived it was 1:00 PM and the big move had to be postponed. While the observers headed off, Hollern, Rhodomoyer, and the construction crew worked on leveling the site where the cranes were going to do their work.[36]

The next day, Hollern finally felt the relief of successfully completing the project he had lived with for five years. Cycling enthusiasts shared the enthusiasm. Within days, the news had reached internet message boards. “Bollman Bridge on the [GAP] Trail is UP,” a user with the handle “Happyslug” wrote before attaching pictures of the almost-finished span.[37] Volunteers installed the bridge’s deck and railings in August, and in September trail users became the first people to cross the span since it closed in 2000. The total cost of the move was only $274,000.[38]

With the exception of maybe some bolts, the bridge survived the move completely intact—its parts are the same ones that Bollman’s workers assembled over Wills Creek in 1871. In its new home on the trail, the Wills Creek Bollman Bridge gained a purpose beyond simply memorializing an important era of industrial innovation. After almost 100 years of neglect, the old warren truss now carries cyclists, hikers, walkers, and runners safely over the traffic below.


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Author: Avigail Oren .......................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................... VIDEO: WQED Pittsburgh produced this short feature on the Bollman Bridge, as part of its project, "The Great Ride" and is used with permission.