Perhaps there is no more graceful work of architecture than the suspension bridge. A combination of beauty and utility, they are more than just a way of getting from here to there. Many would point to New York’s iconic Brooklyn Bridge built in the 1870s and '80s as the ancestor of all suspension spans. And in truth it was certainly John Roebling’s masterpiece that set the standard for the modern bridge from which many take their cue.
But it is possible to go back even further to the early 19th century when a Pennsylvanian named James Finley from the western part of the state created what were known as chain suspension bridges. The late Donald Sayenga, a former Bethlehem Steel executive who was later the executive director of the National Association of Chain Manufacturers, calls Finley the Father of the Modern Suspension Bridge. His chief follower was Jacob Blumer (1774-1830), son of Allentown’s Revolutionary War pastor Abraham Blumer who assisted in hiding the Liberty Bell from the British in Zion’s Reformed UCC Church. It was Jacob Blumer who oversaw the construction of three chain suspension bridges over the Lehigh.
In the early 19th century Pennsylvania and the newly formed nation faced a major problem: how to establish a system of transportation that would tie them together. The best road across the state in 1800 was the remains of one constructed by British Army engineers who were with General Braddock on his ill-fated mission in the 1750s during the French and Indian War. It had not been maintained much since that time. Things were little better further east. John Adams, who forded the Lehigh River at Allentown in 1777 and later the Delaware at Easton, could have given a detailed description of trying to cross both on horseback on his way back to Boston from York, the temporary capital of the country during the British occupation of Philadelphia. A ferry service of sorts was available but it was clumsy, and you had to blow the horn to rouse the ferryman. Better off to just ford ahead and hope for the best. This worked out ok during the Colonial era but a new generation was forming that was looking for new ways to tackle the problem. Stone bridges were too expensive, and the region lacked the skilled engineers to make them practical. Wooden structures were fine for a time but wore out under the weather.
Into this breach stepped James Finely (1756-1828). Most sources have Finley born in Northern Ireland and immigrated with his parents sometime prior to 1769. Other sources have him being born in Maryland in 1756. Before 1784 he settled in Fayette County, near Uniontown, a region then claimed by both Pennsylvania and Virginia. It was not far from where, many years later, Frank Lloyd Wright, another visionary architect engineer, would create his masterpiece home Fallingwater. “I can say little of the country in general,” a contemporary of Finley wrote, “but that it is very poor in everything but soil, which is excellent.”
Details of Finley’s early life are sketchy. Historian Eda Kranakis notes that a friend describes Finley as having an “English education” which stressed English literature and science. It is described in one source as “a Presbyterian church related school that taught reading, writing and arithmetic while introducing him to broad ideas of philosophy and science.” Finley held a number of political offices in the 1790s including two years in the state House of Representatives and a term as a state senator. As a Federalist he supported the Washington administration in putting down the so-called Whiskey Rebellion tax revolt.
By 1800 he was among the richest men in the county. Local people came to Finley with requests for improvements in transportation to help the county and region develop. His particular interest was in roads and bridges. As a result of his position Finley was getting many bridge designs. One even came from artist/inventor Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), best known today for his portraits of famous people of his era. “Legislatures,” he wrote, ”and you men of influences in counties of each State! Turn your attention to this object—shorten your distance to market for the sale of the product of your lands, I offer you a cheap and easy mode of building Bridges.” Peale’s design was for a wooden bridge.
Finley had reviewed the projects and he came up with ideas all his own. He wanted a bridge that was economical to maintain and construct. He also wanted one that could be adoptable to any location so it could be used in variety of terrains. After reading the literature and conducting numerous experiments with weights and measures, in 1801 he publicly proposed his design. He described it in a magazine this way:
“The bridge is solely supported by two iron chains, one on each side, the ends being well secured in the ground, and the chains raised over piers of a sufficient height erected on the abutments at each side, extended so slack as to describe a curve, so that the two middle joists of the lower tier may rest on the chains.”
The first body of water to be crossed by a Finley bridge was Jacob’s Creek. The creek ran from Uniontown in Fayette County to Greensburg in Westmoreland County. The bridge was located near some iron furnaces. Completed in 1801, the bridge was 13 feet wide and stretched 70 feet across the creek. It proved to be much sturdier and stable than a wooden bridge. It could handle heavy carts and wagon as well as foot traffic. Although a type of suspension bridge went back to ancient times using vines, they were not anywhere as stable as Finley’s. For unknown reasons, in 1833, six years after Finley’s death, his bridge was torn down and replaced with a wooden one. But by then they had become popular in other parts of the state and nation particularly in the Lehigh Valley.
Among those who thought the chain bridge was a solution to the Lehigh bridge problem was Easton contractor Abraham Horn. His first bridge was a few hundred yards upstream from the Forks of the Delaware and was 423 feet long and 25 feet wide. It was swept away in an 1811 flood but was quickly replaced by Horn in the same year. It survived until the flood of 1841 and was a similar design. As Horn was building his bridge it apparently came to the attention in Allentown of Ann Penn Allen Greenleaf and her husband, James Greenleaf. The couple had long been interested in improving the value of their land holdings and a bridge over the Lehigh was considered just the thing to do it. Sometime around 1812/13 Jacob Blumer was approached to build a chain bridge based on Finley’s design. Blumer (1774-1830), according to one late 19th century historian, “was a man who possessed a great deal of mechanical ingenuity.” His father Abraham taught him clock and watchmaking. Many of the tall cases, more commonly known as grandfather clocks, that were made locally were the work of Jacob Blumer.
Finley’s design was reproduced in a popular magazine, giving Blumer something to work from. But he had some reinforcements with iron added that were his own innovation. The piers were sunk in the fall of 1813. Building was recommenced in May, 1814, and by that September it was complete. The cost was $20,000. On January 15, 1815 in an article in Niles Weekly Register, a national newspaper, it was noted that it was 475 feet long and had two half spans of arches. The iron work of the chains was of “superior quality, from Mr. Spang’s ironworks,” using about 27 tons of bar iron. “The whole of the iron work was made by the calculations and under the immediate superintendence of Jacob Blumer of Northampton (Allentown) and every part of thereof fitted so remarkably well, that the whole of it was raised in a few days without altering a single link…It is allowed by judges to be one of the best built bridges in the United States.”
Blumer’s bridge was to serve until 1841 when a flood swept it away. Before that time, it had been damaged by fire in 1828 and the building of the Lehigh Canal and had been reduced to a single roadway. Yet it was still invaluable in providing a link to the canal for Allentown commerce. Blumer was to design and build at least two more chain bridges over the Lehigh. The first was in Catasauqua, then known as Biery’s Port. It was a single lane bridge that, like its sister in Allentown, was washed away in the flood of 1841. It was immediately rebuilt and by the early 1850s was carrying a large load of traffic and had to be replaced by a covered bridge.
Blumer’s last bridge was built in 1826 at the Lehigh Water Gap. Although damaged in a fire in 1926 it continued in daily use until 1933. The bridge was damaged in several 19th century floods, but never so severely that it could not be quickly repaired. Its total length was 320 feet. During World War I, 12- ton Army trucks crossed it without even a quiver. For designing and building the bridge Blumer received the princely sum of $233.75.
It was the creation of wire rope, more durable than the older iron chains in the mid-19th century, introduced and manufactured by John A. Roebling, that took suspension bridges into another dimension. So the next time you see or cross George Washington Bridge or other great spans, remember it all started in Pennsylvania with a couple of iron chain bridges over the Lehigh River.