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Pony Bridge Celebration Held in Hellertown

Nearly 25 years after they helped save the borough’s historic Pony Bridge for future generations to enjoy, eight Lehigh University engineering school graduates returned to Hellertown Saturday to celebrate the span’s recent inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Local elected officials, Hellertown Historical Society volunteers and others cut the ribbon to rededicate the historic Walnut Street Bridge (also known as the Pony Bridge) in Hellertown Saturday. The 1860 span was rededicated in celebration of its recent inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places as a rare remaining example of a cast iron Pratt truss bridge. Pictured, from left, are Hellertown Mayor David Heintzelman, State Rep. Bob Freeman, HHS volunteer Roy “Chip” Wagner, Hellertown Borough Councilman Andrew Hughes, Hellertown Borough Councilwoman Liz Thompson, HHS President Larry Sutton and engineer Dr. Perry Green.

Nearly 25 years after they helped save the borough’s historic Pony Bridge for future generations to enjoy, eight Lehigh University engineering school graduates returned to Hellertown Saturday to celebrate the span’s recent inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

The celebration that included a ribbon-cutting with the Hellertown-Lower Saucon Chamber of Commerce and a reception in the Heller-Wagner Grist Mill’s Tavern Room went off as planned, despite heavy rain that limited the amount of time guests could spend closely admiring the rare Pratt truss span that was built by the Beckel Iron Foundry and Machine Shop in Bethlehem in 1860.

Addressing dozens of attendees underneath a tent that protected everyone from the chilly deluge, Hellertown Historical Society president Larry Sutton said the bridge represents an important symbolic link to the borough’s past, as well as to its future, and noted that many people have played a part in ensuring that it ultimately received the official recognition it deserves.

Among those he thanked are local business owner and current mayor David Heintzelman and his wife, Nancy, who donated the funds for the bridge’s redecking a decade ago; local businesses that financially supported its preservation 25 years ago; HHS vice president and immediate past president Stacie Torkos, who did an “amazing amount of invisible work” needed to help get the bridge listed on the national registry; HHS volunteer Don Mills, who compiled a commemorative booklet about the bridge that is now available for a donation to the HHS; the anonymous donor of a new plaque that has been installed next to the bridge; and Roy “Chip” Wagner, who assembled the detailed documentation that was needed for the application to have the Pony Bridge recognized.

A new plaque that was donated by an anonymous contributor was unveiled next to the bridge.

Sutton explained that the application first had to go before the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (PHMC), which last year approved it for review by the National Park Service, which administers the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).

Wagner, a direct descendant of the family that owned and operated the grist mill beginning in the late 18th century, said it took him approximately 15 months to compile everything that was needed for the application, which was then presented to the PHMC.

Having grown up in Hellertown, and as someone who has lived in or visited other historic places around the country, Wagner said he is pleased that the borough now has a listing on the NHRP.

Officially known as the Walnut Street Bridge, the Pony Bridge is believed to have received its distinctive nickname from its deck beams, which are a “pony truss cast,” according to the society.

It served Saucon Valley residents for 110 years, until 1970, when it was replaced with a modern span due to concerns about the weight of school buses that would be traveling to (then new) Saucon Valley High School nearby.

The bridge was then sat along the banks of the Saucon Creek for nearly a quarter century, until the Lehigh graduate students rediscovered it during a survey of historic bridges in the area.

Dr. Perry Green, one of the former students who spoke at the ceremony, recalled the series of events that led the group to Hellertown in 1994.

It began, he said, with a 1993 article about the last cast and wrought-iron bridges in America by Eric DeLony (1944-2018), who was a noted historic preservationist and head of the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) from 1971 to 2003.

Having had little experience working on historic iron bridges until then, what followed was a four-year odyssey, during which the group sometimes had to improvise solutions to save the span.

“Cast iron is a very brittle material,” Green noted, which is why it and most of the other materials used to construct bridges in the 19th century were long ago replaced by safer substitutes.

Despite all of the challenges presented by it, “as engineers we knew the importance of the project we were embarking upon,” Green said.

After disassembling the structure and creating careful documentation to one day put it back together, the real preservation work began, and by 1998 what Green called a “real-world test” of their engineering skills had concluded. The following year, the reassembled, restored bridge was rededicated as a pedestrian bridge across the mill race on the north side of Walnut Street.

Sutton praised the group for its foresight in addition to the countless hours they devoted to the project.

“You knew all along how important this bridge is,” he said.

The eight engineers, who now live and work throughout the country, appeared delighted at the recognition they received at the ceremony, which also included recognition by local elected officials.

“You can’t chart a good course unless you know the path that came before you,” said state Rep. Bob Freeman (D-136), who represents Hellertown borough in Harrisburg.

“We are one community,” observed Mayor Heintzelman. “This bridge connects community.”

Other highlights of the celebration included live music by The Wonton Soups and food catered by Diana’s Cafe, which also baked a cake that was decorated with an outline of the bridge in blue icing.

Wagner, whose family emigrated to Pennsylvania with the Heller family in 1738, was given the honor of cutting the cake.

And his work isn’t done yet, as he noted that the next application the HHS plans to make is for the grist mill his family once owned.

That application to the NHRP is now 60 to 70 percent complete, he said, meaning that it will likely be presented to the PHMC sometime next year.

For more information about the bridge and the organization’s work to preserve local history, or to become a member/donor, visit the Hellertown Historical Society website.

In spite of heavy rain, guests at the event enjoyed walking across the Pony Bridge, which is a rare surviving example of a mid-19th century bridge built from cast- and wrought-iron. Built in 1860, the bridge was a year old when the Civil War began. It remained in use until 1970, when concerns about the weight of school buses that would soon be using it to reach the newly-built Saucon Valley High School led to the construction of a new span.

Eight of the graduate engineering students who saved the bridge from near-certain loss to the elements reunited to celebrate its listing on the National Register of Historic Places Saturday. Pictured at center is Dr. Perry Green, who spoke at the ceremony about the four-year project he and his colleagues completed in 1998. The other engineers who volunteered to save the bridge (not all of whom are pictured above) include William Bruin, Robert Conner, Rich Garlock, Mike Hebor, Christopher Higgins, Ian Hodgson, Rob Tiberi, Paul Tsakopoulos and Professor Ben T. Yen.

Former Lehigh graduate student and bridge project volunteer Paul Tsakopoulos presents Hellertown Historical Society President Larry Sutton with pieces of the bridge that were saved during its rehabilitation from 1994 to 1998. Some of the more decayed pieces of the span had to be refabricated due to their condition, Dr. Perry Green explained during Saturday’s ceremony.

A video presentation featuring photos taken during the 1994-1998 Walnut Street Bridge preservation project completed by the Lehigh engineering students was available to view at Saturday’s event.

State Rep. Bob Freeman speaks during the rededication ceremony Saturday as HHS President Larry Sutton looks on.

HHS volunteer Roy “Chip” Wagner recalls the work he did to help get the bridge listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Wagner’s direct ancestors operated the grist mill that is across the street from where the bridge is now located, and he spent approximately 15 months compiling documentation for the NHRP application that first needed to be approved by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.

Hellertown Mayor David Heintzelman said the bridge represents a symbolic connection between communities “that can never be broken.”

Dr. Perry Green recalls the work that he and other graduate student volunteers from Lehigh’s school of engineering did to save the bridge in the mid to late 1990s.

Local band The Wonton Soups performed at a reception that was held in the Heller-Wagner Grist Mill Tavern Room.

Photos taken during the four-year bridge preservation project completed by the Lehigh engineering students were displayed at the reception in the Tavern Room.

Above, the Heller-Wagner Grist Mill is another landmark that the Hellertown Historical Society hopes will be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. An application for that status is currently 60 to 70 percent complete, volunteer and Wagner descendant Roy “Chip” Wagner said during Saturday’s bridge rededication ceremony.

Roy “Chip” Wagner cuts a cake that was decorated with an accurate representation of the bridge in blue icing.


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About the author

Josh Popichak

Josh Popichak is the owner, publisher and editor of Saucon Source. A Lehigh Valley native, he's covered local news since 2005 and previously worked for Berks-Mont News and AOL/Patch. Contact him at

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