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.
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.