Farm Collector

Starrucca: Built to Last

By Staff

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

  • Published on Jul 1, 1971
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