Water Under the Bridge

By John F. Oyler
Copyright © 2017



An Old Bridgeville Scrapbook
May 18, 2017



Old scrapbooks are valuable sources of historical information. Ed Wolf, the very capable archivist for the Bridgeville Area Historical Society, recently found one in the Society’s archives that is a treasure house of information.

The origin of the scrapbook is unknown, but the old newspaper clippings it contains tell us a lot about many of the legends upon which our current perception of Bridgeville’s early history is based. All of us history buffs realize that we never do know the true story of what happened in the past; instead we know what our predecessors have told us, orally and in written words.

Our understanding of early Bridgeville history is influenced heavily by stories from the Lesnett family heritage as reported by Daniel M. Bennett and by stories from the Poellott family that were repeated to Jimmy Patton by his uncle John Poellott. The Poellott information is well documented in correspondence between them. This scrapbook contains equally well documented information from the Lesnett/Bennett source in the form of old newspaper clippings.

One clipping, a reprint of an article originally published in the December 16, 1920, Carnegie Signal-Item, recounts a description of Bridgeville in 1855 as reported by Mrs. John Caldwell to her daughter, Mrs. Bennett. It contains two historic gems – confirmation of my long time wish that the Bridgeville bridges had been covered bridges, and a clarification of the function of the toll house on Washington Avenue.

According to Mrs. Caldwell, a descendant of the original Lesnett family in this area, “As you entered he village from the southern side, it was over an old covered bridge whose boards were so loose and made so much noise that you imagined your next step would precipitate you into the water of Chartiers Creek below”.

And, from the same article, “As you left the village at north or ‘lower end’, it was over a covered bridge”. Since these statements are included in an article which contains so many of the other trivia from Bridgeville’s early history, we feel justified concluding that the classic structures that gave our community its name were indeed covered bridges.

This gives me the opportunity to speculate on the specific type of covered bridge these might have been. Ithiel Town patented his “Town Lattice Truss” in 1820. It depends upon a large number of intersecting diagonals that give the appearance of a diamond shaped lattice. The same year Theodore Burr patented his “Burr Arch Truss” which combines an elegant arch with a conventional King Post truss. Both designs were popular at a time early enough to produce a bridge described as “old” in 1855. I think I will be greedy and pretend that the south bridge was a Town Truss and the north one a Burr Arch Truss.

The other interesting detail in this specific article was a description of the toll gate on the Pittsburgh and Washington Turnpike in the heart of the village in 1855. Just north of James Street, on the east side of the Pike, “The next place was the toll gate and the residence and shoe shop of Thomas Roach, grandfather of the Roaches in the vicinity. The toll gate and the customary long pole, which descended and barred your way, until you had paid the desired nickel of those days, and Mr. Roach, who was also the gatekeeper, was very alert as to his duties”.

It certainly is easy to wonder about the logistics of toll collecting. Was the toll gate applicable for foot traffic, or did it just apply to wagons and carts? At a nickel a car, a toll gate across Washington Avenue in front of La Bella Bean would generate a handsome revenue stream for the borough.

Although he didn’t mention the toll gate, John Poellott’s description of Bridgeville in 1859, as recorded on page 21 of the Historical Society book “Bridgeville”, is remarkably similar to this Caldwell/Bennett account.

We will report on some other interesting information from this scrapbook in a future column. Suffice it to say these two items alone make it a significant artifact. We are grateful to the unknown donor of this scrapbook and hope its example encourages others to consider the Historical Society when it comes time to clean house and discard things of this nature.

Water Under the Bridge

  • "Water Under the Bridge" is a column written by historian John Oyler. It appears weekly in the Bridgeville Area News, a TribTotal Media publication, as well as in a more expanded form on his blog.

The Author

  • Aside from being Bridgeville's foremost historian, Dr. John F. Oyler is also an associate professor at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh, where he teaches classes in civil engineering.

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