The Pennsylvania Railroad's Stone Arch Bridge in Downingtown

It’s not easily seen from the roads in the borough of Downingtown, but the railroad viaduct over the East Branch Brandywine Creek is certainly an imposing structure. To get an idea of the viaduct’s size and the workmanship of its stonework, it’s best to walk on the trail through Johnsontown Park in the borough, or even paddle the waters of the Brandywine underneath it. The four-arch masonry viaduct (it’s technically called a viaduct because it has multiple smaller spans of approximately the same length) was built in 1892 by the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR). It replaced an iron truss bridge built by the PRR in 1862.

This photograph was probably taken in the 1870s and shows the iron truss bridge over the 1862 Brandywine Creek in Downingtown

The first railroad bridge at this location, however, was built in 1833 by the Philadelphia and Columbia (P&C) Railroad, but it was not the first Brandywine crossing that was surveyed. When the path of the P&C was originally laid out in the summer of 1827, the plan called for the railroad to be located about a mile north of the village of Downingtown, where bridges were to span both Beaver Creek and the east branch of the Brandywine Creek (about where the Route 30 Bypass crosses the Brandywine). However, problems with the planned alignment of the railroad in the eastern section of Chester County prompted an entirely new survey in the summer of 1828. The re-survey brought the railroad to its current location, just south of the village. Though it no longer needed to cross Beaver Creek, a 477foot-long bridge was still needed to cross the Brandywine.

This postcard image of the bridge was taken around 1910

The first railroad bridge at this location, however, was built in 1833 by the Philadelphia and Columbia (P&C) Railroad, but it was not the first Brandywine crossing that was surveyed. When the path of the P&C was originally laid out in the summer of 1827, the plan called for the railroad to be located about a mile north of the village of Downingtown, where bridges were to span both Beaver Creek and the east branch of the Brandywine Creek (about where the Route 30 Bypass crosses the Brandywine). However, problems with the planned alignment of the railroad in the eastern section of Chester County prompted an entirely new survey in the summer of 1828. The re-survey brought the railroad to its current location, just south of the village. Though it no longer needed to cross Beaver Creek, a 477foot-long bridge was still needed to cross the Brandywine.

The bridge has been the scene of a number of train accidents over the years, including this one in 1973.

This first bridge was of a truss-style, made of wood set on stone piers. It was a covered bridge in order to protect the exposed wood decking and support structure from the elements. Covering a railroad bridge at the time, in particular on this railroad, was not expected to be an issue because rail cars for the most part were pulled by horses. Steam locomotives were still in their infancy and it was unclear how much they would be used on the new railroad. But when they were used, a steam locomotive spewing ash and cinders within a covered wooden bridge could be problematic. For example, the wooden railroad bridge over Valley Creek, just a few miles east of Downingtown (where the current twin tunnels are located on Valley Creek Road), burned down in 1838. Sparks from a passing locomotive were thought to be the culprit.

One of the stone foundations of the 1862 bridge can still be seen under the current bridge.

The railroad bridge in Downingtown never burned down, but it was re-built at least once before the P&C was purchased by Pennsylvania Railroad in 1857. The need for a stronger, longer-lasting bridge resulted in the iron-truss span in 1862. And when much of the PRR’s Main Line was expanded to four tracks in the late 1800s, the current viaduct was constructed. About 75 trains still cross the viaduct each day.

These stone blocks were recycled by the Pennsylvania Railroad for the foundation of the 1862 bridge and can still be seen in the waters of the Brandywine Creek.  The blocks, which predated the use of
wooden railroad ties, once held the rails for the original Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad.  Wooden pegs held down a metal plate on top of which the iron rail was placed.

© 2020 Downingtown Area Historical Society  ~  P.O. Box 9, Downingtown, PA 19335  ~  610-269-1709  ~  dths1709@gmail.com