Tucked away in Perkasie’s Lenape Park is one of Bucks County’s treasures, a footbridge inspired by the classic designs of John A. Roebling’s Sons & Co. How the two-span suspension bridge came to be involved Perkasie Borough Council, the federal government, and the design skills of a WPA engineer in based in New Britain, Pa.
Today, Bucks County is fortunate to have three bridges with Roebling pedigrees. The Riegelsville Bridge over the Delaware River was designed and built by the Roebling Company in 1904. And the Lumberville Pedestrian Bridge over the Delaware was a later project, built by the Roebling Company in 1947 for the Delaware River Joint Bridge Commission.
Perkasie’s pedestrian suspension bridge came about when the Works Progress Administration (or WPA) asked Perkasie Borough to consider more federally funded projects in April 1936. The federal agency helped fund local labor for public programs to keep people working, and getting paid, during the Great Depression.
Bucks County WPA chief engineer William Wilhelm was especially interested in Perkasie, and he lived in neighboring Sellersville. The WPA was a key factor in Perkasie and Sellersville between 1935 and 1941. It paid for streets, sidewalks, zoning plans, and athletic fields. The WPA paid for a borough hall in Sellersville and its post office. In 1939 alone, the WPA employed more than 1,000 people in Bucks County.
The Lake Lenape Project
Records in Perkasie Borough’s archives show Wilhelm and the WPA championed a large project to build Lake Lenape Park from lands acquired from various sources including the Menlo Amusement Park, which used a rudimentary dam on the Perkiomen Creek’s East Branch to create a small recreational lake. By 1930, the dam deteriorated, and creek was a muddy, narrow stream. Sellersville’s Parkway Commission, and the Branch Valley Fish and Game Association sought funding to put in a new dam in Sellersville. In October 1935 Perkasie Borough joined the effort, which the WPA would mostly fund.
The Lake Lenape project would cost about $200,000, which included installing the new dam in Sellersville, dredging and straightening the creek, and removing landfill. In March 1936, the WPA engineers realized that if creek were widened and deepened, it would cause a problem with the disposition of floodwaters. The solution was to use of landfill dirt to create an artificial island in the creek on Perkasie’s side of the project, which would divert floodwaters. WPA director Wilhelm also appeared at a special Perkasie Borough council meeting to tell Perkasie’s leaders that the WPA was bringing in construction equipment to speed up the creek dredging project.
The Lenape Park Suspension Bridge Plan
Perkasie’s Borough Council had already approved the idea of the island within the creek. On August 18, 1936, council instructed Borough Secretary Phares Bader to ask the WPA’s engineers “to submit plans and specifications and an estimate of costs of materials for a footbridge to the island from both sides of the creek.” At that point, the island was still under construction. The WPA presented its footbridge plans to Council in January 1937.
WPA civil engineer Alan Gardner Orr from New Britain, Pa. showed council a plan for a two-span bridge that linked the island, with towers and cabling that resembled the famed suspension bridges of John A. Roebling’s Sons of New Jersey. (At the time, the Roebling Company was also working on the Golden Gate Bridge project in California.)
Alan Orr was born in Springfield, Mass., and he attended Amherst and Harvard. Orr had been employed by the Pennsylvania Department of Highways and working on his own in Bucks County as a civil engineer until he was hired by the WPA. In early 1936, Orr was also a recently widowed father of eight children when he prepared the bridge design for Perkasie.
It is unclear how much of plan came from Orr’s civil engineering training or the Roebling’s designs. John A. Roebling and his son Washington Roebling had designed pedestrian suspension bridges. The Roebling company built the Androscoggin pedestrian bridge in Maine in 1892, which still exists today. In another instance, Roebling engineer S.A. Cooney designed a pedestrian bridge for Paterson, New Jersey just days after the disastrous October 1903 Pumpkin flood. It took 48 hours to complete the 180-foot-long span, complete with wooden towers and wooden Howe stiffening trusses. (In the following year Cooney designed the new Riegelsville bridge in Bucks County.) The Roebling company also marketed pedestrian bridges in its annual parts catalogs.
Orr’s design used a classic wire-rope suspension system supported by concrete towers and anchors, and a wooden Howe stiffening truss. The system was widely known by engineers and the Roebling company sold parts for such bridges, as well as offering design services. One span was 54-feet long; the other was 90-feet long. The island itself was 50-feet long. The decks sat on top of a substructures secured in two ways: bolted to the wooden trusses and connected to steel suspender rods. Orr’s design combined the well-known Roebling suspension system with a very sturdy wooden truss to provide a solid foundation for foot traffic.
In April 1937, Perkasie Borough advertised for suspension system materials including roller saddles, wire-rope steel cables, bridge sockets, and suspender rods, on the condition that all “materials shall conform to the standards of John A. Roebling & Sons Company or equivalent quality.” Orr’s plans had been included in the bid packet. The only company that bid on the suspension system was Roebling, at an approximate cost of $2,000.
On June 19, 1937, Perkasie Borough Council gave its final approval for the Lenape Park pedestrian bridge project, and it asked for the WPA’s approval to use local labor for construction. On August 3, 1937, Roebling’s bridge materials arrived, and they came in about $800 under budget. Perkasie’s Electric Department paid for the Roebling parts, and other materials including lumber, concrete and stone fill. The lumber and concrete came from local stores in Perkasie. The total bridge project cost about $6,500 for all materials. The bridge was built in July 1937 and early August 1937. The new lake and the bridge were in public use about one month before the park’s official dedication on September 11, 1937.
Since 1937, the Lenape Park pedestrian bridge has been well-maintained, and it recently was repainted, with new caps added to protect the roller saddles on top of its columns. The bridge also survived the record floods from the remnants of Hurricane Ida in 2021. While the flood waters topped the bridge’s decks, it received no structural damage. The bridge was built to last back in 1937.