Without Fitting, Filing or Chipping by Tom Winpenny

An illustrated History of the Phoenix Bridge Company

     There is something patently heroic about pioneering in late nineteenth and early twentieth century bridge building, and thus the people who were part of the Phoenix Bridge story are, in many respects, worthy of recognition.  The men who originally conceptualized bridge building in Phoenixville in the 1860s became part of the catalogue bridge movement and thus to some extent distanced themselves from the view of a bridge as a highly individualized work of art.  Both Clarke, Reeves and Phoenix Bridge published promotional albums featuring a variety of wrought-iron truss bridges that could be delivered with greater haste than anyone heretofore had imagined possible.  Working closely with the parent firm, Phoenix Iron and Steel, the bridge company practiced velocity of throughput and produced a quality cheap bridge.  Each bridge was reassembled at the plant to insure good fit, and then disassembled and shipped to the erection site.  Ironically, these cheap bridges had a useful life that approached the better part of a century and thus precluded a healthy replacement business.  The bridge company at Phoenixville had a good product that enjoyed an identifiable market niche; of the thousands of bridges designed and fabricated in Phoenixville (the total is about 4,200) a very substantial portion were wrought iron truss railway spans.

    The bridge company's status as a wholly owned subsidiary of Phoenix Iron and Steel was both a benefit and a burden.  On the one hand the subsidiary had the support of a well-respected innovator in rail production and structural steel- and a healthy line of credit.  On the other hand, Phoenix Bridge was intended to be a major outlet for the parent firm's product, and this burning reality placed pressure on the bridge company to seek contracts and a quantity of work than might otherwise have ignored.  Phoenix Bridge rarely turned a profit, but somehow that didn't seem to matter so long as they were pushing iron and steel out the door.
  As Phoenix Bridge grew under the direction of David Reeves in the latter part of the nineteenth century it assumed some major engineering challenges, and with all of this came major disasters and a quantum leap in injury and loss of life on erection sites.  Is it a gross oversimplification and the implementation of lame logic to contend that greater and more complex tasks guaranteed these disasters?

     The famous collapse of the first Quebec Bridge in 1907, Phoenix or any other firm's quintessential public relations nightmare, has generally been assessed as resulting from a design problem.  A closer look at the long history of the project and the many participants, however, suggests several additional possibilities.  Indeed, the chapter on the Quebec disaster focused on a number of human and financial failings in addition to the obvious technical problems.
     The twentieth century held out great promise for Phoenix Bridge.  The firm had tapped a truly global market by shipping its wares as far as Russia and China.  Furthermore, during the first decade it would be involved in such high-profile projects as the Quebec and Manhattan bridges.  The labor force back in Phoenixville or on an erection site had generally been under the control of management, and even the organization of structural steel workers and the dynamiting episodes did not alter Phoenix's world that dramatically.  The union targeted American Bridge and was decidedly less interested in Phoenix Bridge.  Unbounded optimism on the part of David Reeves and John Sterling Deans seems justified, but was it?
    The fortunes of the firm turned downward in the second and third decades of the twentieth century.  The accident in Quebec had obviously tarnished Phoenix's reputation- regardless of the results of any investigation.  The  market for railway bridges approached saturation, and American Bridge maintained an awesome presence.  Reinforced concrete and the revolution it fomented in bridge construction seemed ominous.  A railway industry heading into decline would pay less attention to the repair work and maintenance that Phoenix might provide.  The basic wrought-iron truss railway bridge erected after the Civil War proved to be rust resistant and had an extensive useful life, approaching a century.  Finally, the death of David Reeves II in 1923 brought a less dynamic fourth generation to the fore.  So it was by the 1920s Phoenix Bridge was well on its way to becoming a shadow of its former self, increasingly the all-purpose worker in structural steel as opposed to the heroic bridge builder.

Canal History and Technology Press
National Canal Museum
Hugh Moore Historical Park and Museums, Inc.
P.O. Box 877
Easton, PA 18044-0877

Courtesy, Hagley Museum and Library


Thomas R. Winpenny
One Alpha Drive
Elizabethtown College
Elizabethtown, PA 17022
e-mail:  winpentr@etown.edu