There were several plans to build a bridge between Camden and Philadelphia. One plan proposed using an island in the middle of the Delaware River and a ferry. Other plans incorporated the use of drawbridges.
In 1919, the Delaware River Bridge Joint Commission was created to construct a bridge across the river. Bridge type and location were important considerations.
Two types of bridges were considered; a cantilever and suspension. A suspension design was selected. Financing would be easier since work and contracts could be performed in segments.
Five locations were proposed as bridge crossing sites. You can see these locations in the image at the bottom.
The final decision to build the bridge between Philadelphia’s Franklin Square
and Linden at Sixth Street in Camden was based on traffic patterns, community impact, cost, and geology.
To get as much public support as possible, models of the bridge were shown around the region. The lower left corner shows one on display outside of Philadelphia’s City Hall.
The Ben Franklin Bridge is composed of hundreds of different structural elements including 2 main towers, 2 anchorages, 2 main cables, the approach roadway, and the suspended roadway.
The anchorage was originally designed to function as a train station. The plan was to have passengers coming off the trains and trolleys, transfer to the walkways or the Market-Frankford Elevated train using elevators in the anchorage. Unfortunately, due to the rise in popularity of the automobile and the lack of pedestrian traffic at the base of the anchorage, trolleys never operated across the bridge and the stations were never used.
The foundation for the towers would be created using a caisson which was a 70’ x 50’ box. It was built on land and floated on the river to the tower location and intentionally sunk to the bottom. A knife-cutting edge on the bottom would enable the caisson to dig into the river bed.
The Camden caisson has been floated into place and the lower portion sunk into the river bed.
In order to reach bedrock and anchor the bridge’s foundation, men who called themselves “sand hogs” worked in a small chamber at the base of the caisson to remove the mud, sand, and rock from the chamber.
As the workers removed material, the caisson slowly dug itself deeper into the river and created more material to remove.
In order to reach bedrock and properly anchor the tower foundation, the men had to work 69 feet below the river surface in Philadelphia and 82 feet below the surface in Camden.
The men had to go through decompression chambers prior to leaving the caisson or suffer a condition known as "the bends."
Caissons were also used to create a foundation for both anchorages. Due to the location, size, and number of caissons, steam-powered cranes were used to remove river sediment. Tracks were built to give the cranes access to all the individual caissons.
Once the foundations for the anchorages were in place, the work could begin on the actual anchorage structure. Individual wires are wrapped the around eyebars which are embedded within the anchorage and used to anchor each end of the cable.
At the top of the caisson, the wood forms were removed and replaced with granite blocks. After the caisson reached bedrock, the chamber and access shafts were sealed off and filled with concrete. The top of the caisson was ground smooth and level to provide a proper base for the tower.
A derrick (or crane) was used to lift all the tower sections into place. The derrick was raised as the tower increased in height.
This tower is near completion. The opening for the roadway can be seen just above the “Bethlehem Steel Co.” sign.
This finished Philadelphia Tower and the Camden Tower are nearly completed.
Once both towers are complete, stringing the cable can begin.
Since the weight of the cable was exceptionally heavy, it could not be strung across the river as a finished product. It was built up, wire by wire.
A footbridge was constructed to support the men and equipment used to string the cable.
On June 10, 1924, the first wire was strung between Camden and Philadelphia. River traffic was halted as the initial wires were towed across the river by boats. After the wires were secured on both sides of the river, the tower derricks lifted the wires to the top of the tower.
Before the river was reopened to ship traffic beneath the bridge, dignitaries on a boat called the “John Wanamaker” broke through the coast guard’s barricade and passed beneath the bridge, thus guaranteeing its place in history as the first boat to pass under the new bridge.
In the time between completion of the footwalks and beginning of cable stringing, an "official crossing" ceremony took place on August 8, 1924, almost 2 years before the bridge was opened.
A portion of the 25,000 miles of wire used to create the main cables.
A cable reel consisting of 15 miles of wire.
Individual wires were sent across the river on a spinning wheel. Each wheel carried two wires: a fixed wire and a wire fed by the cable reels. Workers secured the wires to the towers after the wheel passed. At each anchorage, the wire would be removed from the wheel and secured around the eyebars. This process continued for six months as the wheel made several thousand trips across the river.
Granite blocks from Stone Mountain, Georgia. They were installed around the central concrete core of the anchorage.
Cable stringing is almost completed.
Various stages of cable construction. In the upper left corner are four groups of cables that have been joined together. The upper right corner shows a completed cable section during cable compaction. Compaction “presses” seven groups of cables into the main cable. Hydraulic equipment squeezes the cable into its final shape. The image at the bottom shows wire being wrapped around the completed cable.
This image shows cable compaction. Individual groups of cable were squeezed into one main cable. Once the cable was compacted into the final circular shape, steel bands were applied to hold the cables’ shape.
The installation of the suspender cable band. This band allows the suspender ropes which support the roadway to drape over the main cable.
Once all of the suspender ropes were installed, the roadway sections were installed. In order to properly distribute the load, the roadway sections were installed from each tower OUTWARDS towards the mid-span and each anchorage.
The progress of the roadway installation.
After the roadways on the suspended portion of the bridge were finished, the approach roadways had to be completed. This image from September, 1925 shows the construction of the approach roadway at Delaware Avenue in Camden.
Prior to constructing the approach roadways, the buildings in the path of the bridge approach were purchased and demolished. This photo was taken from Second Street, along the Philadelphia approach.
The Philadelphia approach to the bridge was built very close to adjacent structures such as the Wilbur’s Chocolate building which has been partially demolished for bridge construction.
Because of appeals to the Chief Engineer, the alignment of the bridge was altered to save a church.
The original alignment would have required the demolition of Old St. George’s Church on Fourth Street. But the path of the approach was shifted 14 feet south of the church.
Just as in Philadelphia, buildings in Camden were purchased and demolished to make room for the approach.
Installation on the suspended span.
A view of roadway construction.
A crew paving the bridge roadway.
The bridge was designed to have grand entrance plazas on either end. The Philadelphia Plaza has since undergone changes, one of which is the addition of off-ramps leading to the Vine Street Expressway.
The Camden entrance has undergone several changes to improve traffic flow. Changes to the plaza include toll plaza alterations, widening, and the construction of highway ramps from US 30 and I-676.
With nine weeks remaining until the bridge’s opening date, work such as lighting, cable completion, painting, railing installation, and clean-up.
Until workers finished construction details, police kept people and vehicles off the bridge until the official opening.
The Delaware River Bridge opened to the public on July 1, 1926 as approximately 100,000 pedestrians crossed the new bridge.
The opening ceremonies featured speeches by the Governors of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the Mayors of Camden and Philadelphia, and the Chief Engineer. At 12:01 PM the bridge opened to traffic.
On July 5, the bridge closed for a second opening ceremony. At that time, President Calvin Coolidge dedicated a tree in Camden in honor of the bridge’s opening.
Over the years, several changes have been made. The first occurred in 1936 when a transit line opened on the bridge. The line ran from Broadway Station in Camden to Eighth and Market Streets in Philadelphia.
In 1948, another change was made when the 2 areas dedicated to trolley operation were removed and paved …to create 2 traffic lanes which expanded the bridge to 8 lanes.
One result of the widening was the removal of the angel sculptures which sat on fifty-foot pylons and “guarded” the bridge entrances in each state. They were placed in storage when the plaza was widened but were resurrected, restored and unveiled 53 years later in 2001 for the bridge’s 75th anniversary.
These figures by sculptor Leon Hermont are officially titled “Winged Victory” but fondly known as “The Angels.” They are currently on display at the DRPA headquarters in Camden in the lobby of One Port Center.
In the 1950s, new names were given to both the Joint Bridge Commission and its bridge. The commission was renamed The Delaware River Port Authority in 1952.
Since there would soon be 2 Delaware River bridges, the decision was made to re-name name the existing and new bridges after prominent individuals from Philadelphia and New Jersey.
The name of the Delaware River Bridge was changed to Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the new bridge between Gloucester City, New Jersey and Philadelphia would be named after New Jersey poet Walt Whitman.
In the years to come, the Authority would build 2 more bridges with names that honor famous Americans-flag maker Betsy Ross and Commodore John Barry, founder of the American Navy.
No history of the Ben Franklin Bridge would be complete without consideration of the human cost of construction. 15 workers are reported to have died while working on the bridge.
Howard K. Meyer was a Camden resident who joined the army at a young age. He began as a machine gunner at the Mexican border and rose in the ranks to become a member of General Pershing’s staff during WW I.
While overseas, Captain Meyer trained American aviators and was put in charge of equipping planes with life-saving radar.
At the end of the war, Howard Meyer was honored by two grateful nations. He received the American Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Croix de Guerre from the citizens of France.
After returning home to Camden, Captain Meyer took a job working on the bridge. He fell to his death when a welding torch he was using exploded. He was buried with full military honors in Pennsauken’s Arlington Cemetery.
At his funeral, American aviators flew over his grave and dropped a wreath.
(Photos taken by Howard Meyer. Used with permission of the estate of Helen Kellman Meyer.)
The 90 year old Ben Franklin Bridge has become a regional icon and a wonderful example of 20th century craftsmanship and architecture.