Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge celebrates quiet birthday

The Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge spanning the Susquehanna River quietly passed its 75th anniversary on Veterans Day, Nov. 11.

Many stories surround the 7,500-foot-long structure, in secondary use since construction of the Wright’s Ferry Bridge in 1972.

But first its vital statistics:


— Width of roadway: 38 feet.
— Width of sidewalk: 6 feet.
— Number of arch spans: 28.
— Number of girder spans: 20.
— Total weight of structure: 425 million pounds.
— Toll: 25 cents a car but no toll for walkers.
— Cost: York and Lancaster counties built the bridge for $3 million. The tolls came off the bridge on Jan. 31, 1943, when the bond issue was retired.

Mahlon Haines headlines a popular story connected with the bridge, the fifth of six such structures to cross the river at Wrightsville.
“Shoe Wizard” Haines, owner of a successful chain of shoe stores, found himself in trouble after obtaining the status as the last motorist to pay a toll. His son, Stanley, was the first to cross for free.
All this happened amidst World War II rationing, and the government folks who monitored such things cited the duo for breaking laws then in place.
Mahlon Haines argued that he was on a business trip, legal under rationing guidelines.
Next comes the urban legend that someone fell into concrete poured for a bridge support, and his body was never retrieved.
One longtime Wrightsville resident recently quipped that when he first came to town, people tried to persuade him that a shoe mark could be seen in one of the bridge supports.

All this makes the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge overlooked county treasure No. 9 (See earlier posts on the Little Courthouse, Prospect Hill Cemetery, War Mothers Memorial, USO at York County Academy’s former gymnasium, York’s Salem Square soldiers monument, the Cookes House, York’s rowhouses and Wrightsville’s monuments.)

About Jim McClure

Editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday News, ydr.com and its many digital products. East Region Editor, Digital First Media. Journalism/history blogger: yorktownsquare.com. Author or co-author of seven York County, Pa., history books.
This entry was posted in Archives, all posts, Explanations/controversy, Local landmarks, People, Small-town life, Unsung/obscure sites, War, World War II and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge celebrates quiet birthday

  1. Jim Fahringer says:

    I am so glad that the 5th bridge is scheduled to be refurbished. It is in terrible condition. As a matter of fact, I recall a number of years ago that the bridge was reported to be unsafe for the amount of traffic using it.
    My mother, Helen Lau, who lived just west of Wrightsville, told me that when the bridge opened in the early thirties at the height of the depression many people would hitch hike a ride or walk across the bridge. The 25 cent toll was quite expensive for drivers at the height of the Great Depression. They had to pay both ways.
    I have a postcard of the bridge from the 1960’s which states that this is the longest bridge in the world with the twin arch type of architecture – quite interesting!
    However, one of the most interesting stories or legends about this bridge is the story about one of the workers falling into the Arch molds of the bridge when the construction workers were pouring the concrete. I know that most experts dismiss this as an urban legend. The story says that the man was entombed in the arch and his body is there to this day. If you investigate other large bridges in this country, I am told that this same legend is often found. However, my mother, whose father built a house in the early 1930’s at the corner of the former Route 30 and Burg’s Lane insisted that she clearly remembered the incident . Her father built a small gas station and snack shop called the “Blue Stone” which was built at the approximate location of the Yellow Shutter Motel of today(although I believe it now has another name). Also, many older natives of Wrightsville will also tell you that they clearly remember the incident also. I have even been offered a boat ride to the 4th or 5th pier to be shown a plaque that is attached to the pier in memory of this entombed worker in cement. However, the person who offered to show me this, also said you can only see the plaque when the water level in the Susquehanna River is quite low.
    About 30-35 years ago the York Sunday News or it may have been the Daily Record or York Dispatch, decided to investigate these very claims. All their investigations turned up negative. The newspaper claimed there were no newspaper stories that reported the incident back in the 30’s when it was supposed to have happened. The Sunday News also reported that they investigated the records of the construction companies involved with the construction of the bridge and that there were no official records detailing the event. I talked to the people at the Wrightsville Historical Society and they just laughed and said the event never happened. If anyone knows how to look up these old newspaper stories of about 25 – 35 years ago, it would be quite interesting to read the investigational reports by the Sunday News
    When one takes into consideration that there are no newspaper stories (According to the Sunday News or other York paper), no official records from the construction companies or state records, official denials from the Historical Societies, and the fact that this type of story is a common legend that surrounds a number of bridges in our country, it appears that this whole story is only a legend without any proof.
    However, it is quite troubling to me that so many people who were alive back when this bridge was being built, swear that they remember the exact day when this awful accident actually happened. Many of these people can give you first hand details about the incident, including my own mother who has now passed away. I really feel that the investigation of this legend should be re-opened and the results be made public. Time is running out, the people who were old enough to remember this incident are gradually passing away and some effort should be made to document their recollections. It would really be neat to interview one of the construction workers who worked on on the bridge in the early thirties, nut I am sure that is impossible since they would have to be in their late nineties or a hundred years old or more. However, the investigational stories by the Sunday News of 30 years ago may have interviewed one of these workers.f
    Is it just a legend or is it a well hidden secret? Actually, I personally feel that there is just as much evidence for the entombment of one of the bridge workers in the cement in one of the bridge’s piers as there is for the existence of the Abominable Snowman or Bigfoot. I am not saying I believe in either one, but so many older people in Wrightsville say that they remeber the event that it is difficult for me to dismiss this entirely as an urban legend.

  2. Jim Fahringer says:

    Some years ago I took a workshop from Millersville University on local history and learned about an interesting fact about one of the bridges that once spanned the Susquehanna between Wrightsville and Columbia.
    The covered wooden bridge, which was burned by Union Forces at the end of June of 1863 to prevent Confederate Forces from crossing the Susquehanna and marching into Philadelphia or Harrisburg, had a mortgage which was owned by the First National Bank of Columbia, Pennsylvania. This bank is currently a mueum in Columbia or at least was, up to a few years ago.
    When the bridge was burned by Union Forces, the family who owned the bank were never reimbursed for their loss of property. I heard a lady, who is a descendent from the family who owned the bank, tell us about a lawsuit that is still pending against the United States government. The lawsuit is trying to retrieve losses from the Fedreal Government. As of 2001, the lawsuit was still active but no action had been taken.
    Does anyone know if the decendents, from the family who originally owned the mortgage on this bridge, were ever reimbursed for their losses suffered at the hands of United States military forces in 1863?

  3. Scott Mingus says:

    Hi Jim!
    The bridge was not owned by an individual or family, but rather by the Columbia Bank. Cashier Samuel Skoch and other officials tried for years to get money (plus interest) without success, and efforts continued into the 20th Century. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Congressman Joe Pitts tried to revive the effort on behalf of Lancaster County, but without success. I met with the congressmen a couple of months ago to present him with a copy of my book on the bridge burning, and he mentioned that there are no further attempts by his office to collect the money.

  4. Jim FAhringer says:

    Talking about the covered bridge that was destroyed by Union Forces at the end of June 1863, has anyone ever seen a set of plates that were made by the Staffordshire Pottery Company(England) portraying the burning of the bridge. Staffordshire china plates were very popular in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Everyone has probably seen some of the patterns produced by this company on their plates. The plates are most often a pale red and white or blue and white but I have seen some green and white, purple and white, black and white and even some multi-colored ones. The patterns on the front of the plates portray certain geographical, International places, and historical events. I actually saw one of these plates that did portray the burning of the Columbia Wrightsville bridge which probably dated from the late 1800’s. My great aunt, G. Marie Fetrow, and her friend, Thelma Ilgenfritz, had one of these on their wall when they lived at 1777 West Market Street in York, Pa. I believe it was the pale red and white variety but could have been one of the other color combinations. I don’t think these plates, like most Staffordshire plates, were produced to hang on the wall. I believe they were produced to be used as fancy dinner plates. However, I often see them displayed in an upright position in china closets, buffets,and corner cupboards to exhibit their beautiful designs.
    What is kind of amazing to me is that the Staffordshire China company would produce china that portrays the burning of the Columbia Wrightsville Bridge on June 28, 1863. It may not have been the Staffordshire Company but a similar company that made these plates. They produced china for a national and international market. I would not think that this event was of national or international importance that this company would produce china honoring it. If anyone else has any information on these plates, please let me know.

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