Ten Facts About the Trestle Bridge

You may have driven under the Trestle Bridge south of Downingtown hundreds of times, maybe even thousands.  You certainly know it’s massive (and it is!), and you know it needs some TLC (and it does!), but here are ten things you might not know about the bridge, especially if you’re new to the Downingtown area:

1.  We have come to know the structure simply as the “Trestle Bridge”, but earlier bridge names included the “Brandywine Valley Viaduct”, “Downingtown High Bridge”, and the “Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Bridge.”  It was constructed between 1903 and 1904, but it wasn’t until 1906 that the first non-work trains began to operate over the bridge.

2.  The bridge is 1,450 feet long and rises 132 feet over the east branch of the Brandywine River.  The bridge also has complex geometry.  Not only does it descend slightly from east to west, but the bridge was built with a slight curve.  When designing it, Pennsylvania Railroad engineers accounted for the centrifugal forces of a train rounding the bridge’s curve.

In April 1906 a Downingtown woman named Cora sent a postcard of the bridge to Ella Mae Super in Cynwyd, Pennsylvania stating on the front, “Ella this is that high bridge – Cora.”  The postcard image was most likely taken in 1905 when work on the bridge was generally complete but not open to regular freight traffic.  Laborers at the time were still working on the deep cuts through the hills on either side of the bridge.

3.  When first constructed, the Trestle Bridge was an open deck bridge with railroad ties installed directly on top of steel stringers, as seen in the bottom photograph on page 3.  In the late 1940s, the tracks were re-laid on stone ballast over a wooden deck that was specially treated with a fireproof chemical.

4.  The bridge is made up of 24 individual spans.  The longest span is 204 feet and is supported by the two tallest stone piers (a third stone pier is located near the west end of the bridge).  This is the span which is over Route 322 and the Brandywine River.  The next longest span is the fifth one from eastern end of the bridge.  It is 100 feet long because the old trolley line lay at an angle to it.

5.  Guards were posted at the bridge during World War II.  About five years ago, a Hist-O-Gram article noted that Jimmy and Joe Mascherino of Downingtown’s West Ward remembered that their father, Dominic “Daddy” Mascherino, along with Attilio “Barrelhouse” Sciaretta were two of the volunteer guards posted in a shack at the west end of the bridge that one of the brothers described as a “hillbilly outhouse.”
 

This ca. 1910 image (right) was taken from the roof of the West Ward School on Lancaster Avenue in Downingtown.  It faces south and shows the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Main Line in the foreground and the trestle bridge of the Railroad’s low-grade freight line in the background.  An eastbound train can be seen on the trestle bridge from the tell-tale smoke of a steam locomotive.
 

6.  A playful boy almost caused the death of a man on the bridge.  A Downingtown boy manning a switch on the bridge on March 10, 1905 thought it would be fun to lasso the locomotive of a passing work train.  He tied one end of a rope to a beam on the bridge and when the train went by he cast the rope.  Instead of catching the locomotive, the noose caught the arm of the train’s fireman.  He was dragged from the cab, and could have fallen to his death, but fortunately the rope broke.

7.  Italian workers discovered what they thought was a large deposit of titanium when they were excavating the west approach to the bridge during the summer of 1904.  A newspaper article mentioned that the men were hoarding the valuable mineral in their cabins and were “dreaming of riches which will far exceed the $1.50 per day which they are receiving.”  Experts were sent to the site to make a careful analysis of the find which most likely proved negative.
 

The bottom of one of the spans is seen here in a current image where two wooden walkways underneath the bridge are visible.

Taken ca. 1907, this image shows the old Kerr covered bridge on the west side of the Trestle Bridge.  Before Route 322 was built in the 1930s, travel from the center of Downingtown to the south was made through the Kerr bridge.

8.  The bridge was part of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s “Low-Grade” line which was an all-freight route built in three distinct sections to relieve congestion on the Main Line.  Low-grade doesn’t mean the railroad is low to the ground, rather it means the line itself was built very flat which improves railroad operations.  Downingtown’s trestle bridge is part of the middle section of the low-grade route called the Philadelphia and Thorndale branch which ran between Thorndale and Glen Loch.  The other two sections were the Trenton Cutoff (Morrisville, NJ to Glen Loch, PA), and the Atglen and Susquehanna branch (Parkesburg, PA to Cresswell, PA on the Susquehanna River).

If there was a derailment or other operational issues on the Main Line, the Pennsylvania Railroad would often re-route passengers trains across the Trestle Bridge.  This image, however, is of a special excursion train in 1936 that operated on the Philadelphia and Thorndale Branch and stopped on the bridge in order to give the passengers a photo op.

8.  The bridge was part of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s “Low-Grade” line which was an all-freight route built in three distinct sections to relieve congestion on the Main Line.  Low-grade doesn’t mean the railroad is low to the ground, rather it means the line itself was built very flat which improves railroad operations.  Downingtown’s trestle bridge is part of the middle section of the low-grade route called the Philadelphia and Thorndale branch which ran between Thorndale and Glen Loch.  The other two sections were the Trenton Cutoff (Morrisville, NJ to Glen Loch, PA), and the Atglen and Susquehanna branch (Parkesburg, PA to Cresswell, PA on the Susquehanna River).

A Penn Central freight train pulled by two electric locomotives is seen here heading east across the Trestle Bridge in 1971.

9.  A plaque was bolted high up on the bridge’s western stone pier.  It is long-gone but probably noted the years of construction and the names of Pennsylvania Railroad officials.  Mason’s marks can also be seen on some of the stones of the bridge piers.

10.  The bridge was originally double-tracked when constructed in 1903-1904 and electrified in 1938.  The Penn Central Railroad removed one track in 1971.  We are not sure the exact year when the final train crossed the bridge, but it was some time in the mid-1980s.  The single remaining track was removed by Conrail in 1989. 

The bridge was out of service for a period of time after it caught fire in 1937.

A single locomotive is pulling a string of coal cars across the bridge in this image taken ca. 1915.

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