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Fahs Forges Across the Delaware River

Tue January 24, 2006 - Northeast Edition
Mary Reed

A project currently under way in northern Pennsylvania will replace the 65-year-old Barryville-Shohola Bridge, the only span between New York and Pennsylvania for approximately 15 mi. north or south of the location, except for the old one-lane Roebling Bridge.

The existing structure, connecting PA State Route 434 to NY State Routes 97 and 55, was described by Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s (PennDOT) Bernard Walko at an October 2001 public meeting in Shohola as functionally obsolete with a remaining estimated lifespan of not more than 10 years. Its replacement became a matter of some urgency.

History of the Bridges

Barryville was a thriving town in the 19th century, due to its location on the Delaware & Hudson Canal. In 1849 the Erie Railroad arrived at Shohola, PA, on the other side of the Delaware River, and a more reliable crossing method than the rope-pulled ferry (then in use) became necessary, particularly since the ferry interfered with large amounts of timber being floated downriver for industrial and shipyard use in Philadelphia and Trenton, NJ.

The Barryville and Shohola Bridge Company was therefore founded in 1854. Its president Chauncey Thomas, a Shohola businessman, apparently intended to award the task of designing and building the bridge to John A. Roebling, who had been responsible for the 1847 construction of the Delaware Aqueduct (now known as the Roebling Bridge), which carried the canal over the river 5 mi. north of Barryville-Shohola.

Roebling had invented twisted wire-rope spinning in 1840.

His process revolutionized the building of suspension bridges by producing cables strong enough to support heavier loads and lengthier spans — particularly since this cable could be manufactured on the work site. Its most famous utilization was for the Brooklyn Bridge in 1869 under Roebling’s direction. (The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883 by his son Augustus after the elder Roebling’s death from tetanus contracted following an accident near the work site, which resulted in a crushed foot).

The Roebling Bridge remained in service for 50 years, until the closure of the canal in 1898. Its subsequent owner, Charles Spruks, reopened it two years later as a privately run toll bridge, and it was used as a vehicular bridge until 1979. The following year it was purchased by the National Park Service (NPS). Despite various modifications made to its structural elements, its piers and much of its original ironwork, including the cable saddles and cabling, were found to be intact. The bridge is now the oldest wire suspension bridge in the country and has been declared a National Civil Engineering Landmark as well as a National Historic Landmark, earning the latter distinction in 1968.

Given his reputation as one of the foremost engineers in the country and having already designed and built a number of suspension bridges, Roebling was an excellent choice to oversee the Barryville-Shohola project. Unfortunately he was unable to accept the invitation extended by the company because he was engaged in constructing a railway bridge in another part of the state. As a result, Thomas, wrote Frank T. Dale, in “Bridges Over the Delaware River: A History of Crossings,” decided the company would build the Barryville-Shohola bridge itself, albeit with the aid of written instructions from Roebling.

The span was completed in 1855, but its history was not without incident. Built as a wire rope suspension bridge with a single lane and no center support, it was almost demolished by a strong storm three years after it was erected. The rebuilt bridge failed again on more than one occasion, the most spectacular being when the weight of a wagon carrying timber across it caused a complete collapse in 1865. A center support was belatedly added the following year. It was finally replaced by the current camel-backed structure in 1941.

The existing bridge, which is 742 ft. (226.2 m) long and features a 23-ft. (7 m) wide highway, will remain open during construction of its replacement and will be demolished after it is completed.

Bridge-Breaking Ceremony

The design-build $11.34-million contract was bid in December 2003. Fahs Construction Group of Binghamton, NY, is prime contractor. Funding is split between federal and state sources, with the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) contributing half the cost.

Work on the job began in February 2004 with an estimated completion date of late 2006 or early 2007.

Because there was no appropriate patch of ground for the traditional groundbreaking, the project was officially inaugurated by a “bridge-breaking” on March 25, 2004.

After a count of three, participating officials from New York and Pennsylvania ceremonially struck the current bridge’s sidewalk with sledgehammers to formally mark the start of the project.

The new structure will feature a concrete deck and steel beams treated to present a weathered, dark brown appearance. It will be sited upstream from the current span. At 812 ft. (247. 5 m) long with a pair of 12-ft. (3.6 m) travel lanes, the bridge will feature 8-ft. (2.4 m) shoulders at each side as well as a sidewalk about the same width, protected from traffic by a barrier.

Its piers will be given an architectural treatment so their facing resembles a stack of Pennsylvania bluestone, matching the appearance of the Roebling bridge. Two piers are located in the river and the third on the New York bank. The new bridge also will feature three balconies on the upstream side, so pedestrians will be able to view the river and its scenic surroundings.

Obstacles Encountered

A number of obstacles had to be overcome before the job could begin, including a lengthy and extensive archaeological study. The dig began in l996 at a cost of approximately $2 million and eventually uncovered what the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) described as significant Native American artifacts on the Pennsylvania side of the river.

Another matter that had to be investigated was whether or not the river at the crossing point was inhabited by freshwater dwarf-wedge mussels, a species placed on the National Endangered Species List in 1990. Known to exist in only a small number of sites, their presence indicates water purity — a trait that has led to their nickname “freshwater miners’ canaries,” after the small birds carried into mines whose demise signaled the presence of poisonous gasses before the miners’ noses could detect them.

The search was conducted by the U.S. Geological Service (USGS), which examined a 1,000-sq.-ft. area of the Delaware River. As a result, contractors were authorized to conduct in-water activities in a manner ensuring minimal impact on the mussels’ environment, coordinating with the U.S. Wildlife Service (USWS) as appropriate. Provisions also had to be made to take shad and bald eagle migration into account. Restrictions on construction work included not disturbing the riverbed after the causeway was built and remaining out of the water from April 1 to June 15 during shad migration.

Contractors also had to ensure that sufficient room was left for normal river usage by fishers and boaters during construction. Once the causeway, built of large boulders and extending halfway across the river, was in place, floating warning signs required by safety regulations laid down by the National Park Service (NPS) were placed in the river at Narrowsburg and the Roebling Bridge. Similar cautionary markers were located a mile up-river from the work site as well as half a mile from the bridge. Arrow indicators on the signs delineate safe lanes for boats passing through the work site.

Unforeseen Circumstances Cause Delays

Initially, the low level of the Delaware meant the contractors working on the job could not use barges, and due to changes in water depth, equipment and material had to be moved from the work site each evening. However, the area was swamped following the rapid rise of the river when the remnants of Hurricane Ivan swept over the region in September 2004.

Despite valiant efforts by the construction crew and local volunteers, Fahs Construction lost a great deal of material as well as valuable equipment to the flooding.

Although some was rescued, the company suffered loss of equipment (including a crane) to a value of approximately $500,000. In addition, between this and another flood in April 2005, the cofferdam was washed out, with additional work stoppages resulting from heavy rains.

In both cases the top layer of causeway stone was washed downstream, while a number of mussels were carried away by high water, to be later observed along the shoreline at the Roebling Bridge.

Finally, although the original design had called for a concrete, six-spanned bridge, modification to a steel beam bridge with four spans was approved. However, the time taken for this process caused a delay of approximately five months before work could resume on the project, which restarted in December 2004.

These setbacks were cited in a report given by PennDOT engineers to the June 2005 meeting of the New York-Pennsylvania Joint Interstate Bridge Commission (NYPJIB). The engineers’ conclusion was that 2007 was therefore a realistic revision of the original estimated completion date of late 2006. They also cautioned that the cost of the job might be affected as a result.

Even so, Carla Medura, senior construction manager of PennDOT, said, “The job in general has had some delays, but we are working through them. This dry summer has allowed us to complete the last two piers, which are in the river. Had conditions continued as they were in April we would have been farther behind.”

Currently, substructure work is being completed, and the three piers have been constructed and stained.

Work is progressing on abutment No. 1 in Pennsylvania, and it is anticipated steel erection will begin in early 2006.

In addition, a temporary traffic signal has been installed and will be in use until the Memorial Day weekend next year. CEG

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