Pony Bridge enters the history books
Hellertown really ponied up the history Oct. 14 with a celebration commemorating the addition of the Walnut Street “Pony” Bridge into America’s National Register of Historic Places.
The bridge, which dates back to 1860, is drenched in history, and the rain did nothing to foil the festivities sponsored by the Hellertown Historical Society at the society’s Wagner-Heller Grist Mill complex.
The bridge is located across the street from the grist mill on Walnut Street, near a trailhead of the Saucon Rail Trail.
“Welcome to our celebration – your celebration – of this bridge,” Larry Sutton, president of the Hellertown Historical Society, told those gathered under a tent outside the grist mill.
Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archaeological resources.
The Walnut Street Bridge - built in 1860 - received recognition on the National Register for being the last known example of a single-span, single-lane Pratt through-truss bridge in North America. Society member Roy “Chip” Wagner was responsible for researching the bridge’s history and writing the National Register application.
The bridge was fabricated from both cast and wrought iron at the Beckel Iron Foundry and Machine Shop in Bethlehem. It was placed in service across Saucon Creek in 1860 and carried pedestrians, horses, buggies, and eventually cars and tractors.
The bridge was originally known as Wagner’s Bridge and later developed the local name Pony Bridge. The term pony is likely derived from the deck beams which are pony truss-cast.
In the late 1960s, the bridge was declared structurally incapable of supporting school bus traffic and was replaced with a modern structure. The original bridge was saved and relocated, primarily in one piece, to a site along Walnut Street adjacent to the 1760 Heller-Wagner Grist Mill operated by the historical society. The bridge remained there, untouched, for more than 20 years.
Volunteers from the historical society worked with graduate students from Lehigh University and local businesses to rehabilitate the bridge and restore it to its original appearance. The project spanned four years from 1994-1998. One of the Lehigh students was Perry Green – now Dr. Perry Green – who delivered the event’s keynote speech. Most of his fellow Lehigh students who worked on the project attended.
“I can’t say this project was planned – it was not. That would imply we knew what we were doing – we did not,” he said with a laugh as he recalled the journey of work it took to bring the bridge rehabilitation to fruition 25 years ago.
“It was truly a time to use what we learned in our classes.
“There’s a sense of achievement and accomplishment for this volunteer project 25 years later, for it to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places,” Dr. Green said.
“Today is great,” Dr. Green said, voicing his appreciation to the Hellertown Historical Society.
Sutton thanked all members and volunteers, and especially recognized the team of Lehigh engineering students “who started 25 years ago to rehabilitate this bridge.”
“You knew all along how important this bridge is. This bridge has a story. It symbolizes our past and our future – the past linked to the future, linked to our past going forward as a community,” Sutton said.
“Thank you for showing up on a cold, rainy day to be a community.”
Pennsylvania State Rep. Robert Freeman presented a certificate of recognition commemorating the day to Sutton, and noted history not only reminds us where we came from, but helps in “charting a course of where you want to go.”
Hellertown Mayor David Heintzelman declared, “Volunteerism is alive and well in Hellertown.
“This bridge represents the past and future, but also connects community. The bridge is more than a structure. We are a better community today than in the past because of volunteers,” Heintzelman said, adding the bridge “builds communities that cannot be separated.”
Wagner shared he is a direct descendant of the Wagner family that ran the grist mill. “My family came here in 1738 with the Hellers and bought the mill in 1772.”
Wagner recounted he left Hellertown in 1979, and in his travels through many states saw National Register of Historic Places plaques, prompting him to wonder why Hellertown did not have one.
“I came back in 2020 and got involved with the historical society,” Wagner said. He then began researching the grist mill, but when he came upon information on the bridge, he dived into that research, which included information on the Lehigh group.
Wagner said it took him 15 months to assemble the information, then the state approved the application to be sent to the National Park Service.
“This is one of the unique and historic bridges in Pennsylvania,” Wagner said, adding he is now working on compiling information on the grist mill.
In addition to Dr. Green, Lehigh University graduate students who worked on the project were William Bruin, Robert Connor, Rich Garlock, Mike Hebor, Christopher Higgins, Ian Hodgson, Rob Tiberi, Paul Tsakopoulos and now-Professor Ben T. Yen.
Kate Hartney, coordinator of Affiliated Chambers for the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, was emcee for the event, which included a 12:30 p.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony, live music by The Wonton Soups, refreshments in The Tavern Room at the Grist Mill, displays of bridge memorabilia, and tours of the grist mill museum, all free to the public.
Hartney presented Sutton with certificates of recognition from the offices of Pennsylvania Sen. Robert Casey, Pennsylvania Rep. Susan Wild, and Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure.