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Part One

Washington Crossing’s 100th anniversary of public ownership

Despite check conveyance snafu, free travel began in 1922


The 100th anniversary of the freeing of the narrow and functionally obsolete Washington Crossing Toll-Supported Bridge is at hand.

According to published accounts, the bridge’s toll collector stopped accepting fares on the morning of April 26, 1922. Until that point, tolls had been collected at the river crossing since January 1, 1835 – save for the periods after two wooden bridges at the location were destroyed by floods in 1841 and 1903.

However, the bridge between Hopewell Township, N.J. and Upper Makefield, Pa., almost did not take place. A property closing meeting scheduled for the morning of April 25, was bungled by both sellers and buyers.

On one side of the planned transaction were the private owners of the bridge – the Washington Crossing Delaware Bridge Company and the Taylorsville Delaware Bridge Company. On the other side were respective attorneys from the State of New Jersey and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Also in attendance were members of the Joint Commission for Elimination of Toll Bridges an agency the two states formed in 1916 to help facilitate public ownership of the private toll bridges along the river.

The property closing had been arranged to take place at the New Jersey State House in Trenton after the bridge’s private owners agreed months earlier to sell their structure and related properties to the two states for $40,000. But when the parties finally met in Trenton, two issues arose. The bridge owners couldn’t provide tax records on toll revenues that had been collected at the bridge. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania sent a replacement attorney to the meeting without providing him the state’s requisite $20,000 check for purchasing the bridge.

So, instead of exchanging titles, deeds, surveys and money, the closing became more of a conference on how to amicably address the situation. The result: a hastily arranged agreement to cease toll collections at the bridge while providing time for the bridge owners to produce their tax records and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office to convey that state’s payment check. All parties agreed to seal up the bridge sale in two weeks – by May 2, 1922.

The botched closing was the source of some embarrassment to Assistant Deputy Attorney General William Irwin Swoope, the lawyer on Pennsylvania’s behalf to the April 25 closing. Next day’s Trenton Evening Times reported that Swoope “failed to bring a check of $20,000 with him” to the property closing. Meeting minutes of the Joint Commission characterized the matter differently: “a misunderstanding” because Swoope “had not been given check and folder on this bridge when he was detailed to take the place of Deputy Attorney General (Sterling G.) McNees.” Luckily, the postponed bridge purchase didn’t derail Swoope’s career. He ran for a Central Pennsylvania congressional seat that fall -- and won! He served two terms.

Records show the bridge company representatives at the April 25 property closing were: J. Warren Fleming, president; Jesse E. Harper, secretary and vice president; Farley D. Hunt; Horace G. Reader; Alonzo H. Balderston, and John E. Howell.

The new company was established in 1904 after a wooden covered bridge at the location was destroyed in the river’s 1903 Pumpkin Flood. The Washington Crossing Bridge became the sixth of 16 private toll bridge franchises the two states purchased over a 14-year period from 1918 to 1932. Prior purchases were at Lower Trenton (1918); Point Pleasant-Byram (1919); New Hope-Lambertville (1920); Northampton Street (Easton-Phillipsburg) (1921); and Milford-Montague (April 25, 1922). The bridge purchases were the result of a regional grassroots free bridges movement that sprang up along the river in the early 20th century.

As was the case with the other private bridges the two states acquired back in the early 20th century, the Washington Crossing span had a series of deficiencies that had been ignored by its private owners. Within months of the bridge’s public purchase, Joint Commission engineers determined that it needed a new wooden floor (open steel grate surfaces weren’t manufactured until the 1930s). The engineers also determined repairs needed to be made to the bridge’s supporting piers and abutments, which dated back to the mid-1830s. The Joint Commission later attempted to improve the bridge’s approaches.

Submitted by Joe Donnelly, deputy executive director of communications, Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission