Starrucca: Built to Last

Starrucca Viaduct bridge

Starrucca Viaduct is still busy after 122 years of service. Taken from the Railway Employees Journal of February 1970 and sent to us by courtesy of Clarence E. Mitcham, Route 1, Mead, Washington 99021.

Clarence E. Mitcham

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Among oldtimers on the Erie and other railroads in the area, the track from Lanesboro to Susquehanna, Pa., was once known as the most expensive mile of railroad in the U.S. This dubious distinction was due to the large amount of moneynot to mention the considerable time and toil expended by workers employed on the arduous projectwhich was needed to build the most notable feature along this costly stretch of rail, the 1200-foot long Starrucca Viaduct.

Supported by graceful Roman arches, the awesome stone bridge towers 110 feet above the valley and is 30 feet wide at the top. Whatever its cost when it was constructed in 1847-48, the bridge has proved to be an astute investment. The maintenance cost has been, and continues to be, minimal. Moreover, the bridge will probably last, with hardly any need for repair or renovation, for many more decades.

The first railroad bridges were built of big timbers hacked out of this country's virgin forests and laid across the streams and valleys to hold the tracks. But when people began using trains for shipping goods, the wooden bridges were not strong enough to carry the combined load of freight and heavier rolling stock.

Engineers solved this problem by designing masonry arch bridges similar in type to the sturdy Starrucca, which was one of the earliest and longest stone spans built in this country for railroad use. It was designed by James Kirkwood, an ingenious and imaginative Scotsman, and constructed with painstaking exactness by a small army of masons, stonecutters and construction workers who sometimes risked life and limb in the performance of their tasks and duties.

Shortly after the bridge was completed, a group of dignitaries assembled and rode a train to the viaduct, intending to celebrate the event by riding over the bridge, more or less ceremoniously, thus formally opening it to service. However, as the train approached the lofty span, the distinguished passengers, and the crew as well, decided to reconsider the project. After a careful look at the long narrow path of the bridge and the valley below, they decided the new viaduct could be tested sufficiently by the engine alone, and consequently only one person, the engineer, took the first trip across.

The bridge showed no signs of crumbling under the weight of its first locomotive and was soon carrying freight trains and carloads of awe-stricken passengers to and from the Atlantic Seaboard. Its fame as an engineering feat spread rapidly in railroad circles, and the bridge gained great prestige and acclaim for James Kirkwood among his fellow engineers.

Today, many Erie-Lackawanna diesel-powered trains roar in a steady flow of traffic over Starrucca Viaduct, giving the ancient stones little rest. A busy day will see as many as 40 freight and passenger trains rumbling swiftly across the sturdy span.

In addition to being expensive to build, masonry bridges had the disadvantage of a limited span. Iron and steel bridges replaced the early timber and stone structures on the railroads, and only a few of the latter are still in use. But it's a safe bet that the Starrucca Viaduct, outlasting many of the newer bridges, will be around for a long time to come.

The Erie-Lackawanna's huge stone viaduct at Lanesboro, Pa., was built 122 years agoand it's still doing its job for the railroad