Photographs & History

Photographs and History

William H Brown: The Tale of Two Bridges

In a beautiful image by William H. Rau we see the Conestoga River bridge, one of Brown's first stone bridges. Utilizing the figure and boat as a device for scale in the foreground Rau is looking south, as noted by the finished facade of the bridge. To the left out of view is the Lancaster Water Works which still survives today. Photograph collection American Premier Underwriters, Inc. 

In a beautiful image by William H. Rau we see the Conestoga River bridge, one of Brown's first stone bridges. Utilizing the figure and boat as a device for scale in the foreground Rau is looking south, as noted by the finished facade of the bridge. To the left out of view is the Lancaster Water Works which still survives today. Photograph collection American Premier Underwriters, Inc. 

In 1881 a rising figure in the Pennsylvania Railroad by the name of William H. Brown was promoted to chief engineer. At 45 years old the Lancaster County native had 31 years under his belt working his way from a rod man on a survey crew in 1850 to the top of one of the most ambitious engineering departments in the railroad world. Brown had a reputation for knowing every grade, curve and crossing on the PRR. As chief engineer his tenure was likely one of the most notable in the transformation of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s physical plant during the 19th and early 20th centuries, implementing various programs of improvements up until his retirement in 1906. According to his obituary in the New York Times he, “made 133 changes and revisions to the mainline, built fourteen elevated railways through cities, forty-one tunnels, and 163 stone bridges, including [the world's largest] Rockville stone bridge.” The last point was perhaps one his more notable achievements and certainly one of the most recognizable today; the stone masonry arch bridge.

The connection between Brown's first two stone bridges are linked to various correspondence in the planning stages for both locations. Born from the endorsement of stone bridges during the four track expansion, they diverged at the time of design. The Conestoga is two tracks with provisions for expansion (note protruding stone work along the arches) the Conemaugh bridge designed and built with four tracks. Both survive today and remain in active service on Amtrak's Keystone corridor and Norfolk Southern's Pittsburgh line respectively. Left detail; Photographer unknown, image courtesy of LancasterHistory.org, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Right detail William H. Rau, collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc. 

The connection between Brown's first two stone bridges are linked to various correspondence in the planning stages for both locations. Born from the endorsement of stone bridges during the four track expansion, they diverged at the time of design. The Conestoga is two tracks with provisions for expansion (note protruding stone work along the arches) the Conemaugh bridge designed and built with four tracks. Both survive today and remain in active service on Amtrak's Keystone corridor and Norfolk Southern's Pittsburgh line respectively. Left detail; Photographer unknown, image courtesy of LancasterHistory.org, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Right detail William H. Rau, collection of American Premier Underwriters, Inc. 

Two of the earliest spans Brown designed for the mainline were the crossing of the Conemaugh River in Johnstown and the Conestoga in Lancaster. Though bid separately both were originally to be constructed utilizing iron truss spans until Pittsburgh Division superintendent Robert Pitcairn endorsed the use of stone to Brown instead. Touting stone’s strength, durability and its abundant supply on the PRR, the stone bridge would be a long term solution, able to support the growing traffic and heavier trains the PRR was becoming accustomed to. It was there that the course divided for the two bridges. The Conemaugh bridge was built as planned with four tracks and the first to prove Pitcairn’s endorsement true surviving the wrath of the great flood of 1889 just a year after its completion.

With bridge renewals a major part of the program to expand the PRR’s trademark four track mainline across the state of Pennsylvania, the Brandywine Creek bridge in Coatesville and the Conestoga bridge in Lancaster were the last remaining two track spans west from Philadelphia. As discussed previously, the Lancaster terminal was also a choke point in the movement of traffic necessitating the construction of the Lancaster Cut-Off. Just to the east of the junction of this new route with the old main was the Conestoga River, a 61-mile tributary of the Susquehanna. The crossing of the Conestoga saw several successive bridges built for the railroad; the first a 1400’ long series of wood lattice truss spans dating from the P&C which was consumed by fire and later replaced with a fill and a shortened series of iron Whipple trusses around the Civil War. Though Brown had considered another iron design for Conestoga in 1887 its design ultimately followed the fate of the Conemaugh bridge, choosing to use stone instead. Though initial correspondence suggests the Conestoga bridge was to be a four-track span, costs and traffic levels dictated a compromise in design, building a two-track span with provisions in place for expansion. As a result the five arch, 329’ long stone masonry bridge was constructed with foundations to support a four track span. In addition, contractors left stones protruding from the southern side of the bridge, which would allow for any expansion to tie into the existing structure when demand necessitated. Completed in 1888 traffic grew through the next decade but plans were on the horizon that would direct freight off the mainline to a new dedicated low-grade from Atglen to Columbia, by-passing Lancaster all together. Though the span in Coatesville was replaced in 1906 to support the combined traffic demands east of Atglen the Conestoga bridge was never expanded, nor was the mainline between Lancaster and Royalton since the PRR now had three two-track routes for both freight and passenger moves via the mainline, Atglen & Susquehanna low grade and the Columbia branch.

Today many of Brown’s bridges are still in service without remark; the only exception of course is Shock’s Mills, which partially failed during Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Building like the Romans for an empire in the transportation world, Mr. Brown and other people like him on competing railroads represented the pinnacle of engineering, design and forethought that built the United States and are largely responsible for the rail networks we have today.