I was driving southbound on Ridge Avenue recently when I came across an old flying goose sign for the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. I had not spied one of these distinctive directional signs for years, but there it was at the intersection of Ridge and Girard. Suddenly, a range of memories from my childhood in the 1970s overcame me—5th grade social studies, the Bicentennial, Schoolhouse Rock, Welcome Back, Kotter, President Gerald Ford bumping his head, and so on.
In the mid-1970s, signs like this were posted along every byway and intersection throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey and Northern Delaware. They were installed by the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) just before the nation’s Bicentennial celebration in Philadelphia to guide the expected influx of out of state travelers to bridges crossing the Delaware River. The design of the Bicentennial-era guideposts were modeled after 100 directional signs for the Benjamin Franklin Bridge that were manufactured and installed in Pennsylvania and New Jersey in 1929 by the Delaware River Joint Commission. These signs too bore the appearance of a bird in motion.
The central feature of the Bicentennial-era signs is a goose positioned to point in the direction of each bridge over the Delaware. The birds are shown flying and are color-coded for the spans they represented: blue for the Ben Franklin Bridge, green for the Walt Whitman Bridge, yellow for the Betsy Ross Bridge, and white for the Commodore John Barry Bridge. The bottom of many signs include a groovy logo sporting a ring of stars circling “76” for the Bicentennial.
The Tacony-Palmyra Bridge was not included in the program because that span has been operated and maintained by the Burlington County Bridge Commission since 1949. Opened in 1929, the Tacony-Palmyra was designed by Rudolf (Ralph) Modjeski, who also engineered the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, originally named the Delaware River Bridge.
Leaders from Pennsylvania and New Jersey began planning for constructing the The Delaware River Bridge between Philadelphia and Camden in 1919 after years of talking about building a tunnel under the Delaware River. A bridge was deemed less expensive and its construction began on January 6, 1922. The bridge opened to traffic on July 1, 1926, just in time for the nation’s Sesquicentennial celebration. Fifteen workers died during its construction.
Costing $37 million dollars to build, the span was an instant success, attracting 35,000 vehicles a day to cross the Delaware River at 25 cents a passage. It initially competed with the ferries that had darted across the Delaware River since William Penn’s time. In only a few years, the arcing wonder supplanted them entirely.
The Delaware River Bridge’s 1,750 foot-long main span was once the world’s longest single suspension span. While it lost this title to the Ambassador Bridge linking Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Canada in 1929, the structure spawned a new era of long-span bridge construction that lasted through the late 1930s. It has been characterized as the first distinctly modern suspension bridge built on a grand scale. On January 17, 1956, its name was changed to mark the 250th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s birth.
Construction of the Walt Whitman Bridge took four years, eight lives, and $90 million dollars to erect. The same committee that renamed the Delaware River Bridge chose to honor Camden’s famous citizen-poet, but the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden and some New Jersey politicians opposed it because of Whitman’s much-debated sexual orientation. The Camden County Freeholders even floated the very plain name ”Gloucester Bridge” as an alternative. In the end, the bridge became the first major American bridge named after a poet.
The dedication occurred on May 15, 1957, with governors and local politicians in attendance. The American Institute of Steel Construction bestowed on the Walt Whitman Bridge the honor of most beautiful structure of steel of 1957.
Construction of the Betsy Ross Bridge began in 1969 and was completed in 1974, but inadequate highway connections and protests in adjacent Philadelphia neighborhoods delayed its opening until April 30, 1976. The $105 million span was the first major highway bridge in the world named after a woman. Its width, 90-feet curb-to-curb (eight lanes), makes the Betsy Ross one of the widest bridges in the world.
The Commodore Barry Bridge, named after Revolutionary War hero and Philadelphian John Barry, is a large cantilever-truss span structure that connects Chester, Pennsylvania with Bridgeport, New Jersey. With an abutment-to-abutment length of 13,912 feet, this was the world’s longest cantilever highway bridge when it was completed in 1974. Its center span of 1,622 feet is said to be the third-longest cantilever main span in the world, as well as the longest welded cantilever main span in the United States. The $125 million dollar bridge will likely hold on to these titles since cable-stayed bridge designs have supplanted cantilever designs for bridges of this length.
But back to the bird signs. They were utterly ubiquitous when I was a kid in the 1970s. On every single family trip, routine or special, I saw at least one of these unique directional signs along the way. They were everywhere and their peculiar look made the the signs a fond memory from my childhood.
In the 1980s, there was a proposal to replace the goose guideposts with signs containing drawings of a key, kite and lightning bolt for the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, a quill and book for the Walt Whitman Bridge, an American flag for the Betsy Ross Bridge and an arch bridge for the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge. I’m not sure where the Commodore Barry Bridge came out in this scheme, or how the Tacony-Palmyra got into it. The plan stalled indefinitely and the old goose signs remained around the Philadelphia region, but they are getting harder and harder to find. You can still spot them across the bridge in New Jersey, but they are now scarce within the city. Eventually they will disappear entirely and yet another fragment of Old Philadelphia will be gone.