This post about the National Road in Pennsylvania is brought to you by the letter S

S bridge

I have this writer/artist friend who tries to get my engineering-school-educated roadgeek goat by saying things like, “Bridges are named after people who stir the soul, the poets and the artists! That’s why you never see bridges named after engineers!” In response, I usually make pshh noises and say things like, “Seeing his design built is more satisfying to the engineer than any plaque with his name on it might be!”

It’s only been in the past 100 years or so that engineers have figured out cost-effective ways to build a strong bridge at an angle across a creek or river. It has always been easier and cheaper to build them straight across the water. Check this out:


That’s US 40, the old National Road, six miles west of Washington, Pennsylvania. Notice the creek on the left and the two bridges over it – the current US 40 bridge just south of the old, abandoned, S-shaped National Road bridge. Some 19th-century engineer certainly faced limited funds when he was hired to span this gap. So he said, “Let’s build this sucker straight across the creek, and twist the road at either end where it approaches the bridge. That will bring this thing in within budget.” Okay, I wasn’t there, so I only assume he said that. But since “within budget” has been the engineer’s constant companion and, often, nemesis across the ages, from before the Roman aqueducts were designed, I’m pretty comfortable asserting the claim.

Only a few S bridges remain in the nation, and for some reason almost all of them are in Ohio. This is the only one in Pennsylvania. This westbound photo shows the bridge’s curve and includes a reproduction National Road milestone. (Many original cast-iron milestones still stand along the road. This reproduction is made of fiberglass.)

S bridge

What I don’t understand is how there’s one arch on the bridge’s south side and two on the north side. Maybe the other arch is covered up on the other side.

S bridge

I can just hear the state highway worker when his wife asks him about his day. “Oh, I mowed a bridge this afternoon.”

S bridge

While researching this post, I found this 1894 image of the bridge still in use. If only I had seen this photo before my trip, I’d have taken a shot from the same angle. Notice the house in the center of the photo, which partially appears at the edge of two of my photos above.


This bridge does not appear to be named for anyone. Even if it were, I’ll bet everybody would just call it “the S bridge” anyway. I think the next time my friend tries to get my goat, I’ll point out how many bridges are named after politicians. Stir the soul indeed. More like clench the gut.

I’ve driven the National Road from its beginning in Baltimore, MD to its end in Vandaila, IL. To read everything I’ve ever written about it, click here.

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6 responses to “This post about the National Road in Pennsylvania is brought to you by the letter S”

  1. bernie kasper Avatar

    Neat info Jim, that would be a great job, mowing bridges all day !!

    1. Jim Avatar

      The pay probably isn’t very good, though!

  2. Christopher Busta-Peck Avatar

    The arch is present – it’s just been filled in with dirt. It’s strange the way the side of the bridge is angled around the filled in arch.

    1. Denny Gibson Avatar

      I was going to explain that M.C. Escher designed the bridge and let Jim sort it out.

  3. Lone Primate Avatar
    Lone Primate

    I’m surprised to learn there aren’t many of these bridges left (and that they’re for some reason concentrated in Ohio). I would have imagined nearly every old bridge was like this… concession lines were bold and true! — until they encountered a river, then they had to abide by nature’s rules. So I imagined there’d be quite a few of these still around.

    Frankly, I’ve always been kind of proud of the fact that our bridges these days tend to vault straight across things like this… but even the Romans tended to have that conceit. If they could do it 2000 years ago, we can do it today! :)

    1. Jim Avatar

      Hm, good point about concession lines! I don’t get it either.

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