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Saegertown Bridge: A Stunning, Historic, Rare & Valued Historic Bridge & An Overview of French Creek in Northwest PA

I will start by saying that French Creek, also known as the Venango River, is a treasure. This waterway is as substantial as many small rivers and riding along it is so picturesque, especially in the area of Cambridge Springs, Saegertown, and Meadville. For comparison, the Clarion River is of both a similar length, width, and depth, with French Creek's depth monitor actually being much deeper. It starts up in Chautaqua County, New York and meanders through northwest PA and eventually comes to a confluence with the Allegheny River in Franklin. The Venango name is likely derived from Seneca Nation's word Onenaga which means mink. A likely reason for many things in the region having "enango" being included in their names. 

Early on in colonial times, the waterway was used substantially as a connection between Lake Erie and the Allegheny River. Its substantial waterflow was also utilized to make the Erie Extension Canal possible in the Conneaut Lake Erie. The water was raised in Conneaut Lake to make that happen on a canal that ran from Presque Isle Bay, down into Crawford County, and then over to the industrial heavy weight cities of Beaver and New Castle, before meeting with the Ohio River in Beaver County. I am not exactly certain why they didn't just create a routing that utilized French Creek, since it would have taken you right to the Allegheny River, but I am not well versed enough on the history, engineering, and political challenges of that day. The locks and dams on the Allegheny River were probably not complete yet either and navigability of the river probably ended around Kittanning. Additionally, on that canal route, I cannot imagine navigating upstream on the Ohio River was a particularly easy feat either. It only lasted a few decades for it just predated the creation of extensive rail networks that would render the entire line of the "Main Line of Public Works" canals, as clumsy, outdated, and prohibitively expensive to run. For the sake of environmental preservation though, I am glad French Creek was largely spared, since the canal was so short-lived. The canal system though they were a truly impressive feat and they were designed to connect Philadelphia and Pittsburgh via canal and they created impressive workarounds to get across the mountainous terrain of the state. The system becoming derelict and subsequent greed by following industrialists also lead to the main east-west line canal reservoir to break and cause the Johnstown Flood disaster. 

Photo Credit to Historicbridges.org
From the PA Historic Bridge Inventory and historicbridges.org (one of my favorite sites by the way) 

"The 1900, pin connected, single span, 206'-long, Pennsylvania thru truss bridge is supported on ashlar abutments with wingwalls. The polygonal upper chords are built up box sections and the sub-ties are eye bars. The bridge is distinguished as an early example of its type and design. It is the oldest remaining Pennsylvania thru truss highway bridge in northwestern Pennsylvania, and only one other example in western Pennsylvania has an earlier construction date. The bridge is historically and technologically significant."
The road routing in Saegertown and near Meadville takes you either near or across  French Creek many times. In the center of town, this old bridge stands and even has a riverside park that people picnic at and sightsee. On the day I took this picture, there was a snowstorm and the creek and bridge looked just magical. Seeing the old iron and bridge deck covered in snow, and ice chunks flowing through the creek, was really something else. I was struck by the beauty. It was one of those times I was not planning on taking any photos but had my camera bag with me. I get one shot off and the battery died and then I went through my other batteries and all of them were spent too, so I have one shot! I think it caught what I wanted pretty well. I was so awestruck by the beauty and the serenity of the spot in this snow storm. As you continue along the creek up and down from Saegertown, you see a number of classic thru truss bridges that are more modern, and also very beautiful, and you see cottage camps along the creek, and more. It looks like a beautiful place to live. The creek's water health is said to be greatly improved as well, with numerous native freshwater species inhabiting the waters, in addition to the endangered Eastern Hellbender, which is the largest species of salamander in the world. A great read on more of the environmental aspects of this creek can be found through these articles from the French Creek Conservancy and Allegheny College and 

The road rerouting over the years has likely enabled this bridge to be bypassed, restored, and maintained which is something I really value. Pennsylvania does not have that many metal through truss bridges like this, though there are some great examples in this particular region, including this one, and the spectacular ones across Oil Creek in nearby in Oil Creek State Park and the vicinity. This bridge was built by the nearby Youngstown Bridge Company of Ohio. In this region you see a number of Ohio bridge styles you don't see elsewhere in the state since the economies of this area were so interconnected by proximity and industrial might. The tough thing about these iron through truss bridges is the amount of maintenance it takes to keep them around and the inability to do much to fortify them to handle the heavier weight vehicles of today. They were built to carry wagons, horses and pedestrians and their height limits prevent taller vehicles from passing and altering them is difficult to impossible. Additionally, fabricating replacement iron is not really a viable option. With a covered bridge you can restore them by just getting more wood, or modernize them by creating a steel structure underneath and then rebuilding on top to handle heavier vehicles. Since this bridge was bypassed. it is able to hang on. The nearby bridges across Oil Creek are also not main thoroughfare bridges, so they can retain function without having to worry about the heavy ambulances, firetrucks, and trucks that need to pass over a bridge today in order for it to function in a modern setting. 

Go check it out! It is right in town off of the Route 19 and Route 6 routing. 

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