So what makes this river so important to the life and vitality of the city?
The Founding of Harrisburg
The river flows from the north through a gap in the Appalachian Mountains which it carved for itself over millions of years. This 'water gap' was a natural highway for American Indians for centuries before Europeans came to the region. The river also slows at Harrisburg where a large island sits right in the middle of the river, forming something of a natural ford.
White settler John Harris established a trading post at this spot where an existing Indian village existed and dozens of Indian trails intersected and became quite wealthy. His son, John Harris II, laid out the town of Harrisburg in 1785, and used some of the family wealth to dedicate a huge parcel of land on a hill overlooking the river as a site for the state capital should it ever move from Philadelphia.
With the trading post John Harris also established a ferry across the river to allow the white migration west to continue. This was the first attempt by Europeans to tame the river. In the next two centuries, several bridges would be built in and around Harrisburg to cross the mile-wide river. This is their story:
The first bridge to span the Susquehanna River was the locally infamous 'Old Camelback' bridge. Built on nine piers, this wooden bridge was one of the world's longest covered bridges with a shingle roof. It earned its nickname for the humps in it as it arched from one pier to the next.
Construction began on this bridge in 1812 and the bridge opened to traffic in 1816. During its 85-year lifetime, fortunes were made on its tolls. The tolls were supposed to be removed when its financial backers received a 'fair' return on their $192,000 investment. But since these financiers were the most influential in town, their monopoly continued for the life of the bridge. The state, which had $90,000 worth of shares in the bridge sold out to these rich and powerful families for $9000.
When Confederate troops invaded Pennsylvania during the American Civil War in 1863, one of their targets was this bridge to gain access to the state capital and its rail yards. To defend the capital, thousands of troops marched off to meet advancing Southerners. The bill for their passage was submitted and paid by the state in the amount of $3029.
A flood in 1902 destroyed the bridge.
Walnut Street Bridge
The Walnut Street Bridge was built in 1889 as a rival to Camelback and since it was built by the People's Bridge Company it was commonly referred to as the 'People's Bridge'. With the advent of motor cars, it was found to be too narrow for two lanes of traffic.
The bridge is considered a historic landmark as it is one of the last multispan Phoenix truss bridges in the USA. It was finally closed to vehicles in 1972 after the floodwaters of Hurricane Agnes washed over its deck. It has been used as a pedestrian bridge since then. However, the ice flows of the Flood of 1996 destroyed the western span of the bridge linking City Island with the West Shore and damaging the eastern spans.
Repairs were made to the eastern side of the bridge and it is again in use as a pedestrian bridge to City Island. The town councils of the West Shore are still debating on how to best reconstruct their half of the bridge.
Market Street Bridge
Perhaps the most pretentious of all the bridges spanning the Susquehanna is the Market Street Bridge. Opened in 1904, two columns from the old state capitol mark the Harrisburg entrance to the bridge.
Built on the site of Camelback, two markers from that bridge are embedded into the structure of the Market Street Bridge so everyone knows its lineage. And like its predecessor, it charged tolls and made its backers wealthy. The state purchased the bridge's stock in 1949 for nearly $4 million - a price estimated to be far more than the bridge was actually worth. The last toll was collected in 1957.
This bridge is also the oldest to still allow vehicular traffic. This is due in part to several renovations including a widening in 1928 and further renovations in the 1960s. A civic association also added ornamental lights to the bridge in the late 1960s to make it more 'classy'.
M Harvey Taylor Bridge
Opened in 1952 the Harvey Taylor Bridge was the first bridge over the Susquehanna River to be designed for automobiles. And when it opened to traffic, it was the first toll-free bridge across the river.
It was designed to handle 20,000 vehicles a day to help reduce congestion on the Walnut Street and Market Street bridges. Today, the bridge sees more than 35,000 vehicles per day and is viewed as a quick way to get from downtown Harrisburg to the West Shore. Renovations in the early 2000s resurfaced the bridge and added four-foot bike/walking spaces on both the north and south sides of the bridge.
This bridge is named after M Harvey Taylor (1876-1982), a political powerbroker from Harrisburg whose Republican Party political machine ruled the county for decades. Taylor is also one of the longest-serving Republican state chairmen and Senate presidents pro tempore. He held elected office for 46 years.
John Harris Bridge
The first of the interstate highway bridges to open was the John Harris Bridge which is known to locals as the 'South Bridge' because it is the southernmost bridge in Harrisburg. It is rarely referred to as the John Harris Bridge.
Harris of course was the founder of the city of Harrisburg and was long dead when the bridge was named in his honour. It opened in 1960 and has been expanded in recent years to accommodate six lanes of Interstate 83 traffic (three northbound and three southbound).
George N Wade Bridge
Harrisburg's other interstate highway bridge, the Wade Bridge carries Interstate 81 across the river with three lanes in each direction. This inelegant bridge opened in 1973. Interestingly, it is not known as the 'North Bridge' even though it is the northernmost bridge in the Harrisburg area. Locals always refer to it as the Wade Bridge or the I-81 Bridge.
This bridge is named after George Wade (1893-1974) who was another Republican Party political powerbroker who was elected to the state Senate 10 times - his final term won from a hospital bed in 1972. He was one of the longest-serving state Senators in Pennsylvania history, but his role in on the Senate Highway Committee for years assured him a bridge named in his honour.