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This Week in History
February 1-7, 2015

Dispatch from the Committee of Correspondence,[1]
February 2, 1815  

A New “War of the Roses” Between Lancaster and York,
as the Longest Bridge in the World is Completed
at McCall’s Ferry on the Susquehanna River

By Pam Lowry

Sims Smith Bridge, Parke County, Indiana, 2006, built with the same arch and truss design as Theodore Burr's bridge at McCall's Ferry.

February 2, 1815 — Huge bonfires lighted both banks of the Susquehanna River last night as the two sections of the longest bridge in the world were at last joined together. The arch-truss bridge designed by Theodore Burr has a clear span of 360 feet and four inches, crosses a particularly hazardous gorge. Up until this happy date, traveling from Lancaster to York, Pennsylvania was a daunting experience. The crossing of the river at McCall's Ferry was so difficult that during the American Revolution, when York served temporarily as the United States capital, travelers attempting to reach Congress often faced possible drowning. One of these was the Marquis de Lafayette, who barely escaped from the icy river with his life.

Ice was also a problem for Mr. Burr when he attempted to finish the bridge in December. Mr. Burr had built his bridge on a new design in which a large arch supports a structurally independent truss. Not only is this design more economical, but it is capable of spanning huge distances with only one arch.

After the bridge's single arch was built on shore, ice clogged the river and even threatened to pile up on shore and damage the bridge itself. To avert this danger, workmen cut the arch in two and swung it out onto the ice. Wooden runners were pushed under the timbers, but Mr. Burr's workers were too few to be able to pull the two halves into position.

Appealing to the farmers in the area, Mr. Burr reminded them of the importance of the bridge in getting their produce to market. Since one side of the river was Lancaster and the other side was York, Mr. Burr started a new “War of the Roses.” He set up a competition between the farmers from Lancaster and York to see which group could get its section into place first. Mr. Burr has diplomatically refused to say which side succeeded first, but last night the final wedge locked the two halves together, the falsework around the bridge was knocked away, and the giant arch reached triumphantly across the gorge.

Mr. Burr supplied a toast of rum all 'round for his frozen workers, and at last report both the bridge workmen and the farmer-volunteers were still celebrating their victory on the shores of the Susquehanna.


[1] The Committees of Correspondence, best known from Benjamin Franklin’s work, were the American colonies’ means for maintaining communication lines in the years before the Revolutionary War. In 1764, Boston formed the earliest Committee of Correspondence to encourage opposition to Britain’s stiffening of customs enforcement and prohibition of American paper money. The following year, New York formed a similar committee to keep the other colonies notified of its actions in resisting the Stamp Act. In 1773, the Virginia House of Burgesses proposed that each colonial legislature appoint a committee for intercolonial correspondence. The exchanges that followed built solidarity during the turbulent times and helped bring about the formation of the First Continental Congress in 1774. The Committees continued to function in the following years as a US Intelligence Service.