Bridge Records, 1705-1958
- Controllers Bridge Books 1870-1935 - Bridge Name Index
- Controllers Bridge Books 1870-1938 - Creek Index
- County Surveyors Bridge Reports 1927-1955 - Bridge Name Index
- County Surveyors Bridge Reports 1927-1955 - Creek Index
- Original Bridge Papers 1705-1958 - Creek Index
- Original Bridge Papers 1705-1958 - Township Index
A History of County Bridge Laws, 1683-1935
The first law relating to bridge construction was passed in Pennsylvania in 1683. The law required that bridges be built “over all Smaller Creeks & Rivers (that are difficult or apt to be high by Suddain Rain) in the Kings high-way, from the falls of Delaware to the Southern-most parts of Sussex-County, within the space of 18 Months.” The first bridges to be built in Chester County were over Chester Creek in what is now Delaware County.
The 1683 law placed a substantial burden on the counties in both labor and expense. It was eventually amended in 1700, and gave the “County Courts” the discretion to decide where and when to build bridges on the King’s highways. The process for erecting bridges in this period remained vague. In consequence, confusion reigned at the local level. By 1732, county commissioners and assessors were taking an active part in bridge building, despite the law having reserved that right for the courts. The Assembly, in an attempt to stop their interference, passed a new law to clarify that the “justices of the general quarter-sessions of the peace, shall be the sole judges of the place where any bridge shall be built and maintained over any creek or rivulet within the respective counties.”
For nearly seventy years the law remained unchanged. The counties were only required to consider petitions for bridges on King’s highways or provincial roads, not county roads. The first bridge to be built by Chester County, within its present day boundaries, was constructed over Thomas Downing’s mill race in what is now Downingtown in 1741. The next county bridge wasn’t built until 1770, when a stone two-arched bridge was constructed over French Creek near present-day Phoenixville. Both of these bridges were built on what was then considered provincial roads, now state roads.
In 1799 the county was finally granted the authority to build bridges over all public roads. Buried in an act concerning tax rates and levies, the law stated that “when the inhabitants of any county shall be desirous to have a bridge erected or repaired on any public road over any water, they shall apply, by petition, to the judges of the court of quarter sessions of the proper county, state the place and circumstances of the case … and the said court shall give said petition in charge to the grand jury, who shall consider of the propriety of erecting or repairing the same.”
The Pennsylvania Assembly reversed course just a few years later. In 1802 the Assembly shifted the responsibility for building and repairing bridges to the township supervisors; “it shall be the duty of the supervisors, and they are hereby enjoined and required … [to] make and maintain sufficient bridges over all small creeks and rivulets and deep gullies.” The counties only became involved if the financial burden of building a bridge was too much for the township or municipality to bear.
It wasn’t until 1836 that a formal process for requesting and building a bridge was codified into law. Before 1836, beyond the initial petition, most of the steps that followed were largely left to the counties. Now all of the steps in the process were described in detail, from the petition and jury of view to the assessment of property damages and the final inspection. The law also required that any bridge built by a county at the request of the township be designated a “County Bridge.” This designation required the county to take full responsibility for repairing and, if necessary, rebuilding the bridge. The municipalities took full advantage of their right to petition the county for new bridges, typically citing the enormous expense of such projects. However, the counties still had authority to reject such petitions which they did with frequency in the first half of the nineteenth century.
In 1860 a law was passed that attempted to slow the constant stream of petitions from townships whose bridge requests were denied. These municipalities were now required to wait at least two years before they could petition for the same bridge. In an attempt to encourage the counties to build more bridges, the law was amended in 1879. Bridges built by the county were no longer required to be designated a “County Bridge.” The counties could now build bridges but return ownership, and thus their maintenance, back to the townships.
Before 1917, counties simply determined whether or not a proposed bridge was justified, and they had no say in where or when to build a bridge—a determination left to the municipalities This changed with the passage of a new law which gave the counties the authority to build bridges wherever and whenever they deemed necessary.
With the creation of the Pennsylvania Department of Highways, the forerunner of PennDOT, in 1903, the State began to take an active interest in the bridges maintained by the counties on state roads. In 1929, a law allowed the counties, if they chose, to give over ownership of any county bridge located on a state road to the Department of Highways. Within two years, the State would take formal control over all county bridges on state roads.
For a full description of the process and what records may be contained in the Original Bridge Papers, see the Guide below, pages 39-41:
 Act of 1683 (1 St.L. 73, Ch. 89)
 Act of November 27, 1700 (2 St.L. 73, Ch. 57)
 Act of August 15, 1732 (4 St.L. 234, Ch. 330)
 Act of April 11, 1799 (16 St.L. 375, Ch. 2095)
 Act of April 6, 1802 (17 St.L. 151, Ch. 2298)
 Act of June 13, 1836 (P.L. 551, No. 169)
 Act of February 17, 1860 (P.L. 61, No. 77)
 Act of June 11, 1879 (P.L. 146, No. 152)
 Act of May 24, 1917 (P.L. 276, No. 149)
 Act of May 1, 1929 (P.L. 1054, No. 408)
 Act of May 21, 1931 (P.L. 147, No. 104)
Bridge Names: Until the mid to late twentieth century, bridges never had “official” names. By the 1920s, the County began assigning bridge numbers. Initially numbers were assigned west to east, meaning that bridges in Upper Oxford or West Sadsbury will have lower numbers than bridges in Easttown or Birmingham. Bridges built after the numbers were first assigned are numbered sequentially regardless of location.
Before the 1920s bridges generally acquired their name from the fording place or neighboring property owner. In many cases a bridge acquired several names over the decades, changing names as quickly as the neighboring property changed hands. In general, researchers should look for bridges by the name of the creek they crossed and the township(s) they are located in.
This index contains three distinct types of records which are briefly described below.
Original Bridge Papers – This collection contains all extant records concerning the County’s involvement in bridge building and repair. See the guide above for a fuller description. Most of the records filed before the late eighteenth century are receipts for bridge repairs.
County Surveyor’s Reports – These records contain brief summaries of the then current state of county bridges, which occasionally provide a brief history of repairs and when the bridge was originally built.
Controller’s Account/Repair Books – Account books that document the costs of repairs of county bridges.
Researchers should also check the Commissioners Minutes which contains abbreviated entries of bridge-related actions taken by the County.