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(De)Constructing Delaware County's First Veteran's Memorial

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Delaware County’s first veterans’ memorial.Be skeptical of the word “forever.” In the 1920s, Delaware County officials used the word readily when speaking of a memorial arch that was erected on Baltimore Pike in Springfield to honor local veterans of World War I.

Made of reinforced concrete to resemble Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, it stood over a bridge spanning Crum Creek. The structure was dedicated before an estimated 5,000 spectators by William I. Schaffer, a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, who anticipated that its longevity would equal that of the Pyramids, the Acropolis and the monuments of Rome.

“[Our] valorous men … and what they did shall stand in remembrance as long as mankind’s most enduring combination of metallic elements—imperishable bronze—shall last,” declared Schaffer, pointing to two bronze tablets bearing the names of 280 men and two women killed in the war.

And then, after 32 years, the arch was demolished. In 1958, engineers tasked with widening the Plush Mill Bridge—named for the nearby manufacturer of upholstery fabric—said the arch was in the way and “a monstrosity.”

With the arch chiseled to rubble, the tablets were remounted on concrete slabs a few hundred feet west. That installation didn’t last, either. In 1988, the slabs were found to be in the path of Blue Route construction. So they went into storage while officials and surviving WWI veterans squabbled over where they should go. Vets favored the courthouse lawn; officials, the entrance to Smedley Park, near the original site of the arch.

Of the Smedley Park site, Gardner Smith, a 90-year-old WWI vet, said in 1988, “This place is a disgrace.”

Naturally, that’s where the tablets  went, and they remain there today. It’s a history worth remembering this month, when former Gov. Tom Ridge is scheduled to help dedicate another veteran memorial at the entrance to Newtown Business Center on highly trafficked West Chester Pike in Newtown Square.

It all began about 1920. In that year, a truck—described as “large” (by that era’s standards) and filled with potatoes—attempted to cross the 19th-century, covered wooden bridge that then served travelers. “When about its middle,” reported a clipping from an unidentified newspaper, “the structure collapsed, precipitating the driver and companion into the bed of the stream.”

Neither was injured, probably because the bridge was much closer to stream level than what replaced it. Therefore, the truck didn’t have far to fall. Today, engineers strive to cross rivers with bridges whose level doesn’t vary as much from the approaching terrain. Before the 20th century, bridge technology didn’t permit that, so you followed switch-backed trails down one bank and up the other. According to the Times, “Several automobile accidents have occurred on the steep grades approaching this bridge.”

Apparently, the bridge had been wobbly for a while. The Jan. 5, 1920, Chester Times reported that a steamroller had fallen through several years earlier. This was also the year that a new administration pledged to upgrade county roads and, in particular, bridges.

At the time, most bridges had been built to carry horse-drawn vehicles, but they were rapidly being replaced by cars and trucks. In 1920, annual auto production in the United States was two million vehicles. In 1930, it would be 5.5 million.

The state of highways and bridges was not just a local issue. The governor at the time was William C. Sproul, a former Times editor who, as a state senator, had fought for establishment of the Pennsylvania state highway system. That later led to a program of paving rural roads (the “get the farmer out of the mud” program) and state responsibility for major highways. Newspapers dubbed Sproul the “father of good roads.” Sproul Road is named for him.

Locally, James H. Hamilton—who would serve as a county commissioner from 1920 to 1928—came into office on a platform of “supplanting the present antiquated and unsafe wooden structures.” Hamilton was a big-idea man. Speaking to the Media Business Men’s Association in 1924, he offered an image of Delaware County crossed by straight arterial roads that would take traffic off the meandering country lanes.

“It would necessitate the borrowing of $1-$1.5 million, which of course seems to be a large sum of money,” said Hamilton. “But when one realizes that most of it reverts back to the county again in the way of increased assessments, then the plan may be viewed in an entirely different light.”
 

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Hamilton and the commissioners immediately targeted for replacement the Plush Mill Bridge and another over Crum Creek near Leiper Quarry. Both were estimated to have been about a century old. If so, they may have dated to 1808, when the road was laid out as the Philadelphia, Brandywine and New London Turnpike. “All the wooden or unsafe bridges in the county would not pay the price of one life taken of a citizen by reason of a faulty structure,” said the Times.

Then, as now, getting any work done on a memorial can take forever. Before it could begin in Delaware County, the Plush Mill Bridge had its encounter with the potato truck. A temporary wooden bridge took its place.

According to the Times, the memorial arch was primarily Hamilton’s idea. No explanation for the proposal was offered in the press. Perhaps none was required. There was a Civil War monument at the courthouse, so it was natural to conclude something was required for veterans of the war to end all wars.

The bridge was designed by county engineer Roswell Aydlotte—346 feet long with a roadway 30 feet, six inches wide, plus two five-foot sidewalks. Calling the double-spandrel structure “the last word in beauty as well as substantial construction,” the Times was particularly impressed by its size. “The bridge,” observed the paper, “will reach from hill to hill, eliminating the dangerous grades.”

The arch was designed by Clarence W. Brazer, a New York architect with roots in Lansdowne who had designed the county courthouse, the Dunwoody Home and the Deshong Museum. Brazer’s arch was 82 feet tall and 44 feet wide, with spaces on both sides of the interior for two 14-foot bronze tablets.

Building began in April 1923, when Judge Isaac Johnson broke ground with a gilded shovel before a crowd of dignitaries. To explain the bridge’s necessity, Johnson pointed to the inevitability of growth: “Philadelphia is fast crowding westward, and other highways leading from the city are overcrowded, and will be more so in years to come.”

Construction took about 18 months and cost the county some $200,000. Delays were furiously criticized when the bridge wasn’t ready by Labor Day 1924. Hamilton blamed the state highway department, which built the approaches at each end of the bridge, and the telephone company, which dawdled over moving its poles. The bridge opened to traffic in late October.

There was no dedication because the bronze tablets had not been finished. Months passed as logical ceremonial dates went by. The tablets, which weighed a ton each, were finally fastened into place on Armistice Day 1925. But still there was no ceremony.

Finally, July 16 was chosen. Marching from the courthouse to the arch, the 12th Infantry band led a parade that included a battalion of infantry, a detachment of sailors and Marines from the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the Pennsylvania National Guard, and cars filled with Gold Star Mothers and veterans from as far back as the Civil War. Trailing along behind were the Boy Scouts, assorted school children and an variety of high school bands.

Children sang “Over There” and “Keep the Home Fires Burning.” Wreaths were placed. And the entire assembly stood bareheaded as the mother of Albert Clinton Wunderlich—killed in the Argonne in 1918—drew back two blue curtains to reveal the bronze tablets. The task was to have been performed by Lydia Jeffries Higgins, who outranked Wunderlich by virtue of having lost two sons. But she was ill.

Schaffer spoke past the assembled and directly to the dead: “Here, high up on the scroll of fame, not for you but for our own inspiring, we have written your names to the end that your glory may be fadeless and our pride in you never die.”

Demolition of the arch began in May 1958. To double the width of the bridge, the highway department built a new span alongside the 1924 structure. To connect them, the arch had to go. The Times saw its demise as symbolic of a growing tendency to spend the day at the beach rather than at a Memorial Day parade.

Media engineer Gus Houtman wrote this letter to the editor: “The passing of the memorial arch deserves a word of regret, and the little blot which you see at the bottom of this page represents a solitary tear shed at the demise of a fine monument, for a few years depository of the county’s noble thoughts.”

The arch was gone in six months.

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