The first Penn Street Bridge, a wooden structure built in 1816, served the needs of the community for 35 years, braving torrential waters and the rigors of climate. Its peaked roof and boarded sides protected the floor from rain and snow and the 15 windows lining each side permitted sunlight to enter the enclosed structure. It extended only from bank to bank, crossing the river and the canal.
Floods in the Schuykill
From 1839 to 1850 a series of freshets and floods subjected all bridges over the Schuykill to stresses. In January, 1939, heavy waters washed away the Poplar Neck Bridge and severely damaged the Lancaster Bridge, but left the wooden bridge west of Penn Street unharmed. The water, 17 feet above the normal levels came within two feet of the Penn Street Bridge, but passed without damage to the structure even though a number of canal boats were driven against its sides. Another flood in 1841, brought waters 19 feet high, just touching the floor of the westernmost bridge. Again in July, 1850, rampant waters of the Schuykill licked the flooring of the Penn Street Bridge, but left it unharmed,
As if bent upon conquest the floods came again in September of that same year, 1850, this time marshaling a strength of 25 feet above normal levels.
This was too much fro the 34-year old structure and the veteran bridge over the Schuykill collapsed, sharing the same fate as all of the Berks bridges that spanned the angry river.
The Second Bridge- 1851
The County commissioners lost no time repairing the damages to county bridges. Contracts were quickly awarded to rebuild all of the spans that had been demolished, and the firm of Hoyer and Bitner, received the contract to rebuild the Penn Street Bridge. Another wooden covered bridge was built, this time with only partially enclosed sides and turnstiles and foot ways for pedestrians.
Again the floods came, in October, 1869, reaching a height of 23 feet above normal. Other bridges along the Schuykill were severely damaged, but the Penn Street Bridge withstood the attack nobly.
Tolls were collected on the second bridge throughout its life. In 1848, there was an effort made to have all bridge tolls removed, but the move was not successful. The county commissioners insisted that tolls should be collected until the total costs of building were paid. In 1883, the last year of the life of the second bridge, all tolls were removed from all Berks County bridges.
2nd Penn Street Bridge during the Freshet of 1869. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Berks County.
Archival Notes: There are several pictures of the 2nd Penn Street bridge specifically in 1869 and 1885. Of particular note in the photographs is the location and change in the tree lines along Mount Penn. To view the 1885 and the un-flooded 1869 photograph you may visit the Henry Janssen Library. Admission is free to members, for non-members the $7.00 admission charge also grants you access to the museum.