EAST SHORE/WEST SHORE, Pa. (WHTM) — Since 1906, people have traveled between the two banks of the Susquehanna River over the Market Street Bridge.
Next to the bridge at the Harrisburg end is a historical marker keeping alive the memory of the bridge that went before – an engineering marvel known as the Camelback Bridge.
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The Camelback was designed by bridge builder and inventor Theodore Burr. The bridge used his patented arch and truss design which, not surprisingly, is called the “Burr arch-truss” to this very day. (If you visit a covered bridge, and there’s an arch in it, well, you’re looking at a Burr Arch Truss.) In the early 1800’s Burr designed and built almost every bridge across the Susquehanna, including the Camelback, so named because its multiple arches made people think of, well, camels.
The building of the Camelback began in 1812, and it opened for business in 1816. It had two sections that met at City Island, just like the current bridge. It was about 3,500 feet long, 40 feet wide, and had 11 spans. The Camelback was enclosed to protect the wood, which made it dark and noisy, something which could be unsettling for some people, like world-renowned British authors. When Charles Dickens rode a stagecoach through the bridge in 1842, his account of the journey made it sound like the experience pushed him to the brink of a nervous breakdown.
‘We crossed this river by a wooden bridge, roofed and covered in on all sides and nearly a mile in length. It was profoundly dark; perplexed with great beams, crossing and recrossing it at every possible angle; and through the broad chinks and crevices in the floor, the rapid river gleamed, far down below, like a legion of eyes.
‘We had no lamps; and as the horses stumbled and floundered through this place, towards the distant speck of dying light, it seemed interminable. I really could not at first persuade myself as we rumbled heavily on, filling the bridge with hollow noises and I held down my head to save it from the rafters above, but that I was in a painful dream; for I have often dreamed of toiling through such places, and as often argued, even at the time, ‘This cannot be reality.”
The bridge could be rough on some people, but the elements were rough on the bridge. Flooding washed out the eastern span of the bridge on March 15, 1846, but it was rebuilt and reopened on Sept. 20, 1847. Then on May 25, 1866, it was destroyed by fire. But again they rebuilt, and the bridge reopened on November 1, 1867. One advantage of wood, you could rebuild quickly. It would endure repeated bouts of flooding and ice jams during its entire existence.
Early on the proprietors of the bridge earned a reputation for being hard-nosed businessmen. In June 1863, when Confederate forces invaded Pennsylvania, troops were rushed across the bridge to the high ground in Lemoyne to defend Harrisburg. They had to pay their tolls to cross.
By the 1880s people had had more than enough of the high tolls on the Camelback Bridge. They built the Walnut Street Bridge, which opened in 1890 with lower tolls. Sure enough, when the Walnut Street Bridge opened up, tolls on the Camelback went down, and the Walnut Street Bridge became known as the Peoples’ Bridge.
The end of the Camelback came on March 2, 1902, when flood waters destroyed multiple sections of the bridge. This time there would be no rebuilding. The remaining sections were demolished, and on April 20, 1906, the new Market Street Bridge was dedicated, and the Camelback Bridge became a part of Harrisburg’s history.