The day after September 11, 2001, the Stars and Stripes were flying, all over the United States – from homes and schools, shops and business centers. American flags were attached to car radio antennas and pickup truck bumpers, all in reaction to the plane explosions in Manhattan, McLean, Va., and Schenksville, Pa.
In Lumberville, Bucks County, Bill Tinsman had his own idea. He remembered that a friend, Chip Durrell, had recently moved and taken the enormous flag that had graced his barn with him. It was big – 12 ft. by 19 ft.
“Sure, come and get it!” Chip said when Bill asked if he could have it. Bill and his son, Will, chained it to the Lumberville-Raven Rock pedestrian bridge over the Delaware, and a Lumberville 9/11 Memorial Flag has hung from the bridge ever since, replaced when tattered or stolen (yes, stolen) by new flags purchased with villagers’ donations. Bill was the flag tender – when flood waters threatened, Bill would raise it and secure it to the bridge. When the flag needed to be replaced, Bill would get a new one.
Most mornings Bill would walk to the bridge from the lumber yard and pause to gaze upriver before starting his workday.
After Bill died, on Aug. 6, people asked, “Who will care for the flag?” Bill had lived most of his life in Lumberville – generations of Tinsmans were rooted in the village.
“On September 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country,” Bill’s wife, Melody, said, recalling the day the planes struck. “Americans have known wars, but for the past 136 years they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941. Americans have known the casualties of war, but not at the center of a great city on a peaceful morning.”
And she spoke about Bill.
“I feel that Lumberville will never be the same without Billy. But the presence of the flag makes me feel his presence,” Melody said. “And I hope that the community will keep it going with Will at the helm. You can count on us to support it.”
Few Bucks County villages are more picturesque than Lumberville, where early stone homes stand with painted Victorians along both sides of PA Route 32. The Black Bass Hotel, the Lumberville General Store, the 1740 House Inn and Tinsman Lumber are the only commercial operations.
And there’s the bridge, the elegant suspension bridge designed by John A. Roebling. It’s one of two pedestrian bridges in the realm of the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission’s system of eight toll bridges and 12 toll-supported (free) bridges.
At first, the bridge commissioners were skeptical about hanging anything from commission property. Joe Donnelly, longtime spokesperson for the commission, said there was concern about possible obstruction on the river. But in 2010, the bridge commission presented Bill Tinsman with a proclamation praising him for creating “a popular fixture at the bridge” and “a popular artistic subject for area photographers and painters.” The commission also lauded his “vigilance in displaying the flag despite acts of vandalism and theft and deterioration due to nature’s elements.”
Bill Tinsman did much more than hang a flag. He was a cohesive element in a close-knit community, heading organization of the annual Founder’s Day picnic that started in 1982. A fierce defender of conservation and open space preservation, he chaired the Solebury Township Open Space Committee, which at one time boasted that the township had preserved more than any other township in Bucks County. He kept a chart of the levels of the Delaware River and he was proud that his grandfather’s name was carved on a rock that was visible only in times of drought.
Over time, Bill was a member of the Neshaminy Water Resources Authority and the Bucks County Delaware River Task Force, chairman of the Solebury Township Board of Supervisors and president of the Paunacussing Watershed Association. Bill was at the forefront of efforts to stop the U.S. Postal Service’s closing of the Lumberville Post Office, which was once located in the general store, and he joined other Lumbervillians in holding back a PennDOT effort to replace an old stone bridge at the north end of town with a standard concrete model. The result was a compromise – sort of stone and sort of concrete.
He, with his brother, Tom, was the fifth-generation operator of a lumber operation that was founded in 1785 and was owned by his family since the 1860s. Peace-loving Quaker that he was, during the Vietnam War, Bill served in the U.S. Navy.
“The flag has meant so much to us and to newer neighbors and friends in Lumberville,” Melody said. “Now it has a double meaning. It’s the 9/11 origin story, but it’s also the Billy story – personally.”
On the weekend following the attacks, Melody said, “a crowd of neighbors gathered on the bridge under the eerily silent sky, with candles and songs and tears. We tried to make sense of the fear and the loss in all of our hearts. And while we were there we saw the first plane we’d seen since Tuesday, fly over.
“Every year on 9/11 we light candles on the bridge for each year that has passed. This past year, Billy was in the hospital in Philadelphia having his second brain tumor removed. Will and his wife, Renee Farley, lit the candles for us.”
Melody has been polling neighbors, asking them what the 9/11 Memorial Flag in Lumberville means to them. “To a person,” she said, “each thoughtfully replied, ‘Unity.’”
She lamented, “That was probably the last time that we all came together as nation.”
Will Tinsman will tend the Lumberville 9/11 Flag in the future, supported by people of the village and friends, as long as the bridge stands.
A celebration of Bill Tinsman’s life will take place at Solebury Friends Meeting at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 14. Donations to the Lumberville Bridge Memorial Fund can be sent to 6632 Old Carversville Road, Lumberville, Pa. 18933.