The Phoenix Bridge Co. was organized in 1864 as a division of the booming Phoenix Iron Company. It was created following the 1862 invention of the famous Phoenix Column. A diagram of a Phoenix Column is shown below. Before the Civil War bridges were either of timber or metal truss designs. The Phoenix Bridge Co. became a leading metal truss builder following the Civil War. The company often used the Phoenix Column which was superior to the previously used cast iron bridges that were susceptible to undetectable cracks that lead to sudden failures. These bridges were a pin-connected struss structure such as the Calhoun Street Bridge in Trenton, NJ that was built by the Phoenix Bridge Co. in 1885. From 1869 to 1884, the company fabricated more than 800 bridges, 500 of which used the Phoenix Column. The Phoenix Column was lighter in weight and had greater strength than cast iron columns of similar shape and size. Railroads were their biggest customers although they built over 280 Phoenix Column highway bridges from Maine to North Carolina from 1885 to 1895. Bridge designs changed by 1900 because pins suffered wear and stronger bridges were needed for increased weight loads. By 1900, bridges began to use a newer technology of riveted steel members.
However comfortable Phoenix
Bridge Co. may have been in doing one thing very well, the firm's
leadership, embodied by president David Reeves, chief engineer Adolphus
Bonzano, and superintendent John Griffen, ultimately pursued more
fascinating and difficult engineering challenges. In
1874, the company completed the Girard Avenue Bridge over the Schuylkill
River to connect the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in Fairmount
Park to the Philadelphia Zoological Gardens. Concurrently, David Reeves
proposed a one-thousand-foot-high centennial tower, an exciting idea
featured in Scientific American on January 24, 1874 that died for lack of funding. In addition,
contracts were executed for viaducts, a Brooklyn elevated line, and
bridges to span the Ohio River and other rivers.
In 1884, the owners of Phoenix
Iron Co. took advantage of a new trend, the catalogue bridge business. It was a logical new business because firms like Phoenix Iron Co. could now produce and store
standard structural iron parts. Potential customers could look at a catalog
of component bridge parts and purchase the items necessary for their
All of this was somewhat misleading. Every bridge to some degree was a
custom order. Custom tailoring was most effectively carried out by
consulting engineers mediating between the needs of the customer and the
resources of the bridge company, a process that became a common practice.
In brief, the fabricating bridge companies were not exactly producing
the turnkey products they liked to think they were producing. Despite
this caveat prefabricated bridge companies were entering a new
Phoenix Bridge Co. functioned
as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Phoenix Iron Company and
each year purchased roughly 20 to 40 percent of the parent
firm's output. Both companies maintained offices in center city
Philadelphia and had production facilities 28 miles to the northwest along
the French Creek in the quiet Borough of Phoenixville, a community
served initially by the Pickering Valley Railroad and the Reading
Railroad. The coziness of the relationship between parent and
subsidiary generated grumbling among competitors; but that was
commonplace and quite similar to the relationship between Carnegie Steel
and the Keystone Bridge Company.
Co. did a lot of business in an overcrowded industry in the last
decades of the Nineteenth Century, fabricating and erecting hundreds of
railway bridges and viaducts and an occasional highway span, primarily
in the United States, Canada, and Latin America. Many of these spans
were relatively modest in length and used Phoenix Columns and truss designs. The products
appeared in the firm's trade catalogues and had been reproduced many
times. Phoenix Bridge had a very comfortable market niche fabricating
unspectacular but readily available and reliable products.
Phoenix Iron Co. started making steel in 1889. Before then their products were made of iron.
In 1888, a Phoenix bridge
under construction in Cincinnati lost all of its temporary
supporting framework. In 1893, a Phoenix bridge under construction at
Louisville collapsed resulting in extensive loss of life. In 1898, a
Phoenix bridge almost completed in Rockbridge County, Virginia, gave
way--again with loss of life. In 1907, a Phoenix bridge under
construction in Quebec collapsed into the St. Lawrence River killing 75
workmen in one of the most infamous bridge construction accidents in history.
The insurance records of
The Phoenix Bridge Company (known as Kellogg, Clarke and Company from 1868 to 1870 and Clarke, Reeves and Company from 1871 to 1884) reveal
ongoing death and injury to workmen on erection sites which was not surprising
given the dangerous nature of the work.
Phoenix Bridge Co. lost both money and prestige as a result of these accidents,
but they also were hurt by competition especially from
American Bridge Company that was formed in 1900 as a
subsidiary of United States Steel Corporation. American Bridge Co. eventually had up to 90 percent of the bridge market.
Phoenix Bridge's best years were
behind them by 1907 given the competition primarily with American Bridge Co. and the
accident in Quebec. In 1907, Phoenix Bridge Co. still had some fascinating
projects on the drawing board including the Manhattan Bridge in New
York City that was completed in 1909.
than a decade later, company business records reveal a trend in
the direction of smaller projects and often nondescript work.
America needed only so many steel bridges, and a
market saturation had been reached. A revolution in reinforced concrete
started to redefine bridge construction, and Phoenix Bridge Co. hardly seemed
to be a position to capitalize on that revolution. Phoenix Bridge Co. had
always been viewed by its owners as an outlet for the finished product
of Phoenix Iron Co. Both World Wars provided business for a firm
experienced in working with structural steel, much of this related to
shipbuilding, but beyond World War I business prospects were generally
A major effort was made in
the late 1940s to sell the firm without success. Phoenix Bridge
Co. continued until it went out of business in 1962.
Phoenix Columns were used to build almost 1,400 bridges around the world. The last heat of steel at Phoenix Steel Co. was on November 18, 1976.
Phoenix Iron & Steel Documents: The Society has close ties with the Chester County Historical Society in West Chester and The Hagley Museum & Library near Wilmington, Delaware, which houses papers of the Phoenix Iron Co., the Phoenix Steel Corporation, and the Phoenix Bridge Company. You may also visit the Schuylkill River Heritage Center At The Foundry in Phoenixville to learn more about the Phoenix Bridge Company. Their web site has photos of over 50 Phoenix Bridge Co. bridges.
Please click here to visit the Schylkill River Heritage Center's web site that has over 70 pictures of Phoenix Bridge Company bridges that were built around the U.S. in their Bridges and Structures button on their home page.
The source for much of this article is from from Without Fitting, Filing, or Chipping, by Thomas R. Winpenny, published by Canal History and Technology Press in
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