Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area

204 Church Street, Phoenixville, PA 19460

hspa@verizon.net   610-935-7646

www.hspa-pa.org   or   www.phoenixvillehistoricalsociety.org

 





 


Phoenix Bridge Company

 

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 specific bridge.

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 era.

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.

Phoenix Bridge 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.

Little more 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 grim.

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 1996.





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