The Manayunk Bridge has re-opened as a pedestrian and bike trail after being closed for decades. Credit: Photo by C. Southgate for Visit Philadelphia

The almost half-mile-long Manayunk Bridge has connected Philadelphia to Montgomery County since the early 1900s.

That makes its 30-year closure all the more mystifying: Why was it shut down in the mid-1980’s and neglected for decades until Oct. 30 when it re-opened for public use?

Kay Sykora, director of Destination Schuylkill River at the Manayunk Development Corporation, said she remembers riding in a train across the bridge before it was decommissioned in 1986. Now, she says, Manayunk residents are thrilled the neighborhood icon is back in use, thanks to efforts from both sides of the bridge.

“We’re very excited and in a really good way,” she said. “The only frustration from some people is because they expected it to be open 24 hours a day. And for us, that’s a good kind of frustration.”

The beginning of an icon

The Manayunk Bridge was constructed over two years by the Pennsylvania Railroad and finished in 1918, but that came after what’s called an S-bridge, according to Sykora. That wrought-iron bridge that was (you guessed it) in the shape of an “S,” was constructed in 1883, the same year the Brooklyn Bridge opened for public use.

But that bridge just wasn’t strong enough for the heavy freight trains that would be passing over it, so the Pennsylvania Railroad built the Manayunk Bridge as a replacement, a stronger way to connect the Lower Merion area with Manayunk.

By the mid-1970s, what’s now known as Conrail had taken over the freight trains in the area and discontinued running freight trains over the bridge. SEPTA still operated its Regional Rail line in the area though, the one that’s now called the Cynwyd Regional Rail line, and is incidentally one of the SEPTA’s lesser-used rail lines.

Everything changed in 1986 when low ridership meant what was known as the “Manayunk West” station at Dupont and High streets in Manayunk was demolished and no longer in use. In addition, the Barmouth and Ivy Ridge stations were shuttered and the Cynwyd line was shortened.

The closing and problems of the bridge

Without freight trains traveling across it and the closing of the Manayunk West station along the Cynwyd line (which resulted in truncated service), there was little reason for the Manayunk Bridge to continue to exist for train travel purposes. It was decommissioned by SEPTA in 1986.

Sykora said that was the beginning of problems with the bridge; with no use came no maintenance, and  that included chunks of cement falling off. She said the integrity of the structure was still largely intact, but because of the chemical make-up of cement at the time of its construction, the surface was badly decaying.

In the 1990s, she said there were “chronic conversations” with SEPTA about what should be done with the bridge. Tearing it down was an option, albeit an expensive one. So instead of ripping down the neighborhood’s icon, SEPTA spent more than $10 million renovating certain areas of the bridge.

In addition to cleaning up the bridge itself, drainage systems were retrofitted and the surface had been re-done.

“And so,” Sykora said, “we ended up with a structure that had been nice, but worn. But now it was very attractive.”

The revival

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 4.42.05 PM
Credit: Via @Spottschrift on Twitter

Enter Montgomery County.

Lower Merion Township raised the funds to complete the once-trashed Cynwyd Heritage Trail, which Sykora said opened the door for the revitalization of the Manayunk Bridge by “making it an easier sell.” Now, it connects the Cynwyd Heritage Trail with the still-in-progress Ivy Ridge Trail in Manayunk.

A number of agencies — including PennDOT, DCNR, Lower Merion Township and the city — came together to fund the $4.2 million project. Other major agencies like SEPTA, the Manayunk Development Corporation, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, the Federal Railroad Administration and more are involved in the ongoing improvement project.

(At this point, SEPTA technically still owns the surface of the bridge itself, but leased it out to the city and Lower Merion Township which will split the bridge in half in terms of maintenance.)

By 2010, SEPTA removed tracks from the top of the bridge, in 2011 the bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and construction began last summer with the official public opening taking place at the end of last month.

Sykora said that though the bridge is open and is working toward the vision of one day creating a connected network trails in the Schulkill River area, improvements will continue as the agencies work to secure funding for things like lighting, furniture and other upgrades.

What’s certain is the impact it’s having on the already-booming area: Developers are touting this trail and others to come as a major amenity. In the immediate vicinity of the bridge, O’Neill Properties is developing a 650-unit apartment complex and Sykora said they’re working to retrofit a private bridge toward the complex.

“The good news is we’re working with multiple agencies,” Sykora said. “And that’s the challenge as well.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.