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4.14.2019

Starrucca Viaduct: Stunning Railroad Stone-Arch Bridge in PA's Endless Mountains

As someone who loves photography, historic structures and bridges, railroad stuff, scenery, engineering feats, and scenic places, Starrucca Viaduct has long been a place that I have wanted to check out. The opportunity arose to finally go check out this spectacular bridge, and I could not pass it up. Starrucca Viaduct was one of the most ambitious engineering triumphs of its time, and set the tone for the ambitious growth of the railroad industry. Dating all the way back to 1848, it remains as one of the tallest stone-arch masonry bridges in the world, more than 160 years after it was built. It even predates the standardization of railroad gauges, for it was initially built with 6 foot wide track, largely to maintain monopoly status. Later on, there would be a contentious battle to standardize rail gauges at 4 feet and 8.5 inches and the Erie Railroad would eventually comply. This left a significant amount of extra room on the railroad right-of-way. This bridge and rail line was fundamental in helping grow New York City, with it carrying fresh foods from the midwest, in addition to industrial goods, and coal for heating. 
Starrucca Viaduct is in the Endless Mountains region of Pennsylvania, in Susquehanna County, not far from the PA/NY border. This stunning bridge dates back to 1848 and remains one of the world's tallest railroad stone arch bridges, with piers ranging from 90-100 feet. It carries the New York, Susquehanna, and Western Railroad, and was originally built by the Erie Railroad in the midst of its push to make the first railroad connection between New York and Lake Erie, which would eventually connect between New York and Chicago. The bridge was an incredibly ambitious project especially considering that this is purely stone masonry, with no steel reinforcement. The bases are concrete, which may have been the first use of structural concrete in an American bridge. That stone is not a facade, but masterfully crafted stone work that is in pristine shape and still receives regular freight train traffic. Many bridges that are not even a fraction of the age of this span have not stood the test of time that this giant has. 
The stone, ashlar bluestone, was sourced from local quarries within the immediate area of the bridge. 
Old telegraph poles are still extant adjacent to the bridge, and on the perpendicular right-of-way that was once used by the D&H (Delaware and Hudson). That rail line was abandoned decades ago. On private property, just down the road, you can see a neat metal-lattice bridge on the old line. It is clearly visible, but not open to be explored. 
The local newspaper, the Montrose Independent posted this remembrance during a commemoration of the Starrucca Viaduct in 1931 by the daughter of one of the builders of the bridge: (Sourced from the Pennsylvania Center for the Book)

“There was great commotion among the people when the first report came that there was to be a railroad built from New York to Lake Erie, there to connect with boats for the far west. It was in the year 1845. It was some time before the surveyors got up to the Gulf Summit [,] Cascade and to Lanesboro…My father and I visited the scenes and work of the railroad building very often, which was very interesting and exciting to us all…

The stone was cut and numbered and loaded on the stone cars drawn by horses and mules over the piers and were unloaded by derricks down on the piers. They drilled two holes in the large stone, about two feet apart. They had a short chain with ring in center and short plugs on each end. They would stick these plugs in the holes with the derrick, hook in the ring and let them down on the piers where they were fitted to go. The stone was … marked with black paint. The masons on the piers knew where to lay [it].

When the piers were up to the track they built another section of false-work and so continued to raise the track over the piers until the work was done. When the piers were high enough for the arches, they left projecting a row of stone to set the wood arches to [,] to lay the stone on. They were now one hundred feet from the ground and every pier was fastened just the same and stands in a perfect row, just the same as was built…

When the bridge was completed it was a wonderful view to behold, to see that bridge with the false-work of timbers filling the space between the piers from the ground to the arches… The contract [to remove the falsework] was let to a man by the name of Purdy. He built a boarding house, or shanty like, very long on the ground, where the school house now stands, boarding many of his men and paid them $1.00 a day… He soon had a lot of men who were not afraid to work on that dangerous job. A number… went from Jackson. My father was one…” —Hosea M. Benson, November 24, 1931

I can only imagine how incredible it was to see this construction, especially with none of the equipment and safety equipment that we see today. I do not envy the risks that these workers had to take in order to put food on their table for their families. My immigrant ancestors came here around the time that Hosea gave this account, going down into the coal mines and dying young from diseases that would have been preventable with minimal safety equipment. Knowing that the laborers on this bridge did not have basic safety equipment, such as helmets, respirators, and harnesses, these guys put their lives on the line to support their families. This bridge is a testament to those efforts, still functioning in pristine shape, more than 160 years after it was constructed.
The arches are truly a sight to behold. 

Some of these rocks demonstrate Hosea Benson's account of the construction, showing the chiseled holes that were used to lift stones into place.
This is one seriously stunning structure.
The surroundings of the bridge are so idyllic that it has even shown up within a landscape painting by Jasper Francis Crospey from 1865.


Luciana Park offers cool views of the bridge, and these neat informational panels.

The bridge crossing Starrucca Creek. It meets with the Susquehanna River in just a few hundred feet. 
This concrete arch bridge is just down the road from Starucca and is impressive on its own. Though, within a half hour drive of this spot, you can see the incredible Martin's Creek and Tunkhannock Viaducts.
The Susquehanna, PA, Erie Railroad train station is located just down the street. It is in the midst of being revamped. It has sat vacant for a long time, after serving as an eatery. It was built in 1863, and passenger service ceased in 1970. 
The station is in the midst of being redone, which is no small feat. For updates on this project, check out the Reviving the Starrucca House Page.

Overall, the Starrucca Viaduct is well worth going out of your way to see. The countryside surrounding it is very nice, and the bridge is just incredible. 

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