The Bridge Commission is making preparations for a rehabilitation/improvement project at the agency’s iconic Northampton Street Toll-Supported Bridge between Easton, PA, and Phillipsburg, N.J. The bridge is colloquially referred to as the “free bridge” to distinguish it from the Easton-Phillipsburg Toll Bridge (previously the Bushkill Street Bridge) a short distance upstream. The Northampton Street Bridge was last rehabilitated nearly 20 years ago.
The project’s core objective is to extend the 125-year-old bridge’s useful life, mitigating major repairs that could necessitate protracted bridge closures for at least 15 years.
An engineering firm – GPI/Greenman Pederson, Inc. of Lebanon, N.J. – is designing the multi-faceted project (2020). Construction activities are expected to begin sometime during 2021, which is the 100th anniversary of the year the tolled crossing was freed of tolls after being acquired by Pennsylvania and New Jersey in a transaction facilitated by the former Joint Commission for Elimination of Toll Bridges across the Delaware River.
Work is expected to take place on the bridge, below the bridge and at the masonry abutments at both ends of the bridge. The Commission is seeking to have the project construction activities staged in a manner to alleviate travel impacts, such as preventing disruptions of Pennsylvania-bound travel that would force motorists to make tolled crossings of the nearby Easton-Phillipsburg (Route 22) Toll Bridge.
As currently scheduled, a virtual open house about the project is expected to be announced and held sometime toward the end of 2020. More information will be posted when it becomes available.
Call or email: Director of Community Affairs Jodee Inscho
All of the following dates are tentative estimates (updated April 2021):
The major anticipated project tasks include:
The project team includes:
The Northampton Street Toll-Supported Bridge – colloquially referred to as the “free bridge’’ – is the Commission’s second oldest superstructure, having been constructed in 1895 and 1896. It is a rare bridge design that gets high marks among bridge enthusiasts. The bridge rates a 10 on a scale of 10 on the HistoricBridges.org website’s historic significance rankings – both nationally and locally, stating: “This bridge is a unique, incredible blend of engineering and artistry that is unlike any other bridge in the country. At first glance, it has the appearance of an eyebar suspension bridge. However, this bridge is a true cantilever truss bridge.”
The bridge is the only three-lane vehicular bridge in the Commission’s system and it the most heavily used of the agency’s 12 non-toll bridges. It carried a daily average volume of 16,900 vehicles in 2019. The bridge has a three-ton weight limit and a 15 mph speed limit. Bridge monitors are stationed at each end of the bridge on a 24/7 basis to prevent crossings of overweight vehicles.
The last inspection report on the Commission’s toll-supported bridges – conducted in 2018 and released in 2019 – classified the bridge as being in “fair condition” and “capable of safely supporting the posted load.” However, the report compiled a list of concerns that have slowly arisen since the bridge’s last rehabilitation in 2001:
This list of deficiencies pushed into a priority position in the Commission’s rolling capital improvement program, which is ultimately financed by tolls collected at the agency’s toll bridges. The resulting rehabilitation project will address these structural concerns while addressing other needs at the bridge, making for a comprehensive approach. Additional issues to be addressed under the project include:
The Northampton Street Bridge was constructed in 1895 and 1896. Its superstructure is primarily steel, but some structural members – such as the eyebars – are wrought iron. There is no opening date for the bridge because it was constructed over and around the footprint of the Timothy Palmer-designed wooden-covered Easton Bridge, the second bridge to cross the Delaware River. The old Easton Bridge’s wooden vehicular deck continued in use for a substantial amount of time while the metal replacement bridge with new piers and expanded abutments were constructed.
It took several years to construct the Easton Bridge, primarily because of challenges its owners – the former Easton Delaware Bridge Company – experienced in raising capital to finance the project. The wooden bridge reached completion and opened to use as a private tolled crossing in September 1806. The venture proved to be worthwhile as the bridge company stock shares became a coveted commodity for generations of area investors. The bridge’s strong dividends eventually sparked agitation among residents in Easton and Phillipsburg (incorporated as a township in 1851) seeking free or reduced pedestrian passage. Pedestrian tolls were eliminated in 1856 – 50 years after the bridge’s opening.
Palmer’s Easton Bridge survived multiple floods but was showing its age in the latter decades of the 19th century. With the advent of electric trolley service in Easton, the Easton Delaware Bridge Company was compelled to replace the dowdy wooden bridge in the 1890s. The plans for a steel bridge were drawn by James Madison Porter III, the member of a distinguished Easton family. Porter’s grandfather – James Madison Porter – was a former president of the Easton Delaware Bridge Company and one of the founders of Lafayette College. Like his grandfather, Porter III taught at Lafayette.
A renowned engineer and successful businessman, Porter was a strong proponent of cantilever bridge designs. His Northampton Street Bridge is considered his crowning achievement because of the way it was constructed and because of its unique design. At first glance, it looks like an eyebar suspension bridge, but is actually a cantilever truss structure.
The design is identical to that of the Liberty Bridge that spans the Danube River in Budapest, Hungary. Both bridges are cantilever trusses that have plaques, finials and other decorative features. Designed by Janos Feketehazy, the Liberty Bridge is longer and more massive than its Delaware River counterpart. It is unclear how Porter and Feketehazy came to design similar bridges at approximately the same time. One theory holds that Feketehazy’s plans were shared with Porter while he was on a trip to Europe.
Porter completed his bridge design in 1894. The Easton Delaware Bridge Company then contracted with the Union Bridge Company of Athens, PA. to construct the structure. Union Bridge was consolidated into the American Bridge Company by financier J.P. Morgan in 1900.
The Northampton Street Bridge, like its wooden predecessor, was operated as a tolled crossing by the Easton Delaware Bridge Company. It also was strong enough to carry an electrified trolley. After the “Pumpkin Flood” of 1903 and the advent of affordable mass-produced automobiles in 1908, Pennsylvania and New Jersey residents began agitating public officials to purchase and “free” various privately owned bridges that served the Delaware River region. This free bridges movement led to the 1916 creation of a bi-state panel – the former Joint Commission for Elimination of Toll Bridges – that assisted the states in jointly purchasing the old privately owned bridges linking the two states over the next 16 years.
The Easton Delaware Bridge Company resisted efforts to sell its bridge, largely on account of the healthy dividends it provided to its shareholders. The two states finally succeeded in purchasing the bridge for $300.000 on Aug. 3, 1921. The states then paid the old Joint Commission equal annual tax-generated subsidies to operate and maintain the bridge.
In 1924, the bridge was significantly rehabilitated, with traffic restricted to a single lane. Backups and delays raised awareness of the need for a larger bridge between Easton and Phillipsburg. This led to the creation of the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission (DRJTBC) in 1934 and the construction of the Bushkill Street Toll Bridge — now the Easton-Phillipsburg (Route 22) Toll Bridge, which opened in January 1938. The DRJTBC assumed the responsibility of operating and maintaining the Northampton Street Bridge on behalf of the two states in 1934.
The Northampton Street Bridge was the Delaware River crossing point for the former William Penn Highway. The steel bridge carried all vehicular and pedestrian traffic between Easton and Phillipsburg for almost 42 years. Because of this, the bridge’s load rating was restricted to 7 tons around the time of the toll bridge’s opening. The trolley rails were removed in 1951.
The bridge’s center span was destroyed in the Delaware River’s historic flood of 1955. Two Bailey bridges were erected upstream of the damaged structure; these temporary structures linked the two municipalities for about two years and was removed in 1958. During that time, the Northampton Street Bridge’s center span was reconstructed. The work involved the removal of about 221 tons of old steel and the installation of about 197 tons of new steel along with 190 yards of concrete paving. The repaired bridge reopened October 23, 1957.
The two states maintained ownership until July 1, 1987. On that date, deeds were assigned outright to the DRJTBC and the states ceased providing equal annual tax subsidies for the bridge’s operation and maintenance. Under changes the two states and Congress made to the DRJTBC’s Compact in 1987, the Commission uses a share of revenues collected at its toll bridges to run the Northampton Street Bridge and 11 other “toll supported” bridges that were formerly owned by the two states.
In 1995, the bridge was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).
Year completed: 1896
Structure type: Cantilever truss
Total length: 550 feet
Width: 36 feet
Number of lanes:
Total clear roadway width: 32 feet
Sidewalk widths: 8 feet
Load rating: 3 tons
Vertical clearance on structure: 10-feet, 6-inches
FHWA classification: Functionally Obsolete
Last Rehabilitation: 2002
Last Painted: 2002
Flood Info (river reading levels in feet):
River Crossing Ownership
DRJTBC drone flyover (Dec. 23, 2019) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1qlWNOzucM&feature=youtu.be
Vivian Makin (YouTube) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1rSvIzRlr4
Flood of 1955 and Reopening (YouTube) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEdfXyyxVNM
Brien Lee, Union Square Phillipsburg 4:30 p.m. (YouTube) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fzy-LNM54fs
Roadwaywiz, Westboud (YouTube) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIHEW25O3Z4
Roadwaywiz Eastbound (YouTube) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqjVwJM8NG8
Various DRJTBC aerial, historical, and profile photos of the bridge.
F.E. Griggs, Jr., Timothy Palmer: The Nestor of American Bridge Builders
Mike Harrold, industrial survey volunteer, Amesbury Carriage Museum, Amesbury, MA, Dec. 31, 2018; Timothy Palmer and His Bridges
Porter Family Papers, 1800-1918, Lafayette College
James Madison Porter III – Wikipedia
Lance Metz, The Morning Call, Lafayette Prof Designed Northampton Street Bridge, August 29, 1993
Sarah Cassi, LehighValleyLive.com, 100 years of free trips: Easton-Phillipsburg free bridge rehab project scheduled for anniversary, May 19, 2020
Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) Report:
Dale, Frank T. Bridges over the Delaware River: A History of Crossings. Rutgers University Press, 2003 (Print), 69-77
Richman, Steven M. The Bridges of New Jersey: Portraits of Garden State Crossings. Rutgers University Press 2005 (Print) 97-98
Summa, Marie; Summa, Frank; Buscemi Sr., Leonard Historic Easton. Arcadia Publishing 2000 (Print), 21-22
Buscemi Sr., Dr. Leonard Phillipsburg. Arcadia Publishing 2001 (Print) 6, 108-112, 123
Shafer, Mary A. Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955 Word Forge Books 2005 (Print) Chapter 13
Shank, P.E., William H. Historic Bridges of Pennsylvania. American Canal & Transportation Center Eighth Printing, Fourth Edition 2004 (Print) 3-5
Allen, Richard Sanders Covered Bridges of the Northeast. Dover Publications, Inc. 2004 (Print) 12-13, 90-92