Elmira’s First Bridge

Wooden bridge, 1864

by Erin Doane

The Lake Street Bridge closed to vehicular and pedestrian traffic in March 2011. I started working here at CCHS in May 2011, so I never had the chance to go over the bridge that is just across the street from the museum. It was announced recently that work would start next summer to repair the bridge and open it to pedestrians. This is just the newest chapter in the history of this river crossing.

The first bridge across the Chemung River in Elmira was completed at the foot of Lake Street in 1824. Before that, one needed a ferry to cross the river. The wooden bridge was constructed by the Elmira and Southport Bridge Company. It had three piers, one in the center of each channel and another on the island in the middle of the river. Some years after it was built, the spans began to sag considerably. Once, a drove of cattle crossing the bridge, broke through the first span during high water and timbers and cows went floating down the river. In 1840, the bridge was badly damaged in the “great fire” of that year. A new covered bridge was erected on the spot with J.H. Gallagher supervising construction.

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The covered bridge burned in 1850 when the tannery at its south end caught fire. It was replaced by a wooden truss structure. This new bridge was open at the top except for some crossing timbers. This allowed the snow to fall through onto the roadway during the winter so that sleighs could more easily cross. A considerable part of this bridge was washed away during the St. Patrick’s Day flood of 1865. The bridge’s only stone pier was undermined and most of the southern span dropped out and washed down the river. The bridge was repaired and remained in used until 1869.

By 1869, there were two bridges over the Chemung, at Lake Street and Main Street. Both were toll bridges. Businessmen on the north side of the river did not like that people had to pay tolls to cross. Customers from the plank road district and other parts of Southport were reluctant to cross the bridge to do businesses. Farmers didn’t want to pay a toll to sell their produce so they went south to Troy, Pennsylvania instead of to Elmira.

Early in 1869, the city passed a legislative act authorizing it to purchase both bridges for $25,000 (around $460,000 today). They dropped the tolls and used taxpayer funds to maintain the structures. Three years later, another act was passed authorizing the building of new bridges at both locations. The Main Street bridge was replaced first, then the Lake Street bridge was completed in 1874. The new Lake Street bridge was made of iron with three spans of 182 feet each and trusses that were 26 feet high. The piers were made of limestone. It cost $65,000 (about $1.4 million).

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The Lake Street bridge was replaced again by a new steel bridge in 1905. While the work was being done, a temporary wooden pedestrian bridge was erected next to it so that people could still move across the river.

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In June, 1959, City Manager Angus T. Johnson reported to the Elmira City Council that the Lake Street bridge was in desperate need of repair. The bridge supports were weakened, the metal fixtures were corroded, and rivets were missing from some joints. Salt used on the roads during the winter caused much of the deterioration. The Council closed the bridge to both all traffic and plans were made to replace the structure.

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On June 21, 1961, between 1,200 and 1,500 Elmirans gathered in the rain for the official opening of the new Lake Street bridge. The bridge had been closed for two years but construction had finished two weeks ahead of schedule. The cost of demolition of the old bridge and construction of the new was $473,270 (just under $4 million today).

In 1972, flood waters rose all the way to the bridge’s deck but it survived largely unscathed. Eleven years later, in 1983, it was closed for two months while new expansion joints were installed, the structural steel was scraped and repainted, and the roadway was resurfaced with a new membrane liner to help preserved the concrete deck.

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Regular maintenance was not enough to keep the bridge from deteriorating. Winters can be hard here in the northeast and, despite yearly washing, salt used to treat the roads damaged the bridge’s concrete supports and rubber expansion joints. In March 2011, the Lake Street bridge was declared unsafe and closed to vehicles and pedestrians. At the time, it had the lowest traffic count of all the city’s five bridges over the Chemung River. As early as May 2011, there were reports that the bridge would be repaired for pedestrian use only. Next summer, some eight years later, the project may finally get underway.

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Erin Doane is the curator at the Chemung County Historical Society. To see more of their blog, go to http://chemungcountyhistoricalsociety.blogspot.com

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