This six panel truss bridge has a plaque on it saying that it
was built in 1878 by the Morse Bridge Company. Normally plaques are to be
believed, but stylistically, this bridge does not look like it was built in
1878, it looks more like a bridge from the late 1880s or the 1890s. It is
traditionally composed. The verticals are composed of two pairs of angles with
lattice, the top chord and end post is back-to-back channels with cover plate
and battens. The diagonal members and bottom chord are perhaps the only unusual
detail because the up-set eyebars have eyes that are more oval-shaped than
circular, which is unusual. In 1878 most companies were still experimenting a
lot and so bridges usually had some off details that would not be found in later
bridges. Further, the Morse Bridge Company was a company that was anything but
normal. They seem to have had a nearly infinite variety of aesthetic treatments
which could be incorporated into their bridges; they never stuck with one
particular design. This pony truss however does not have any decorations.
Assuming the plaque is correct however, this bridge should be
considered extremely significant since it would represent an extremely early
example of a bridge that follows the general standardized design that became the
norm by the 1890s. This bridge thus would would be very ahead of its time. The
bridge would also be extremely significant as not only one of the earliest
remaining Morse Bridge Company Bridges, but it also would have been built in the
very first year of the company's operation.
History of Morse Bridge Company From Historic American Engineering
The Speicher Bridge brought Berks County in contact
with Henry G. Morse (1850-1903), an important late l9th-century
businessman. Morse and his brother, C. J. Morse, formed their firm in
January 1878. Thus the firm was in business only a few weeks before
receiving the Berks County contract.
The company employed 100
workers to fabricate "all classes of iron bridges, roofs, and boilers."
A contemporary noted large derricks by which "the heaviest bridge
girders" were loaded for shipment on one of the two railroads serving
the plant "by which they ship direct by every railroad" entering
This description placed Morse Bridge Company in the
company of typical mid-19th-century metal bridge building firms formed
to build the first generation of metal bridges. The virtue such firms
possessed for customers such as the Berks County Commissioners was that
they were "equipped to execute a complete construction job." The county
could expect Morse to produce "a finished bridge ready for traffic."
In 1878, 28-year-old Henry G. Morse was in the early years of an
important career. He had graduated from Rensselaer Institute of
Technology in 1871 as a Civil Engineer. From that time until 1873 he
worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad. For the next four years he was an
engineer for the Wrought Iron Bridge Company, Canton, Ohio. This
training placed him in the company of experienced engineers who rapidly
mastered or improved metal bridge design between 1850 and 1880.
Nine years later, in 1887, Morse left his Youngstown firm to become
president of Wilmington, Delaware's Edgemoor Bridge Works. In 1896 he
began a brief two-year tenure as president of the Harlan and
Hollingsworth shipbuilding firm in Wilmington Perhaps his most important
activities occurred between 1896 and his premature 1903 desth in J. P.
Morgan's office. Contemporaries believed he left Rarlan sud
Hollingsworth despite "reorganizing it and placing it on a successful
basis" because of "a difficulty" over his stock demands. He resolved to
form his own company to build "the most modern shipbuilding plant in the
Morse succeeded. He built in Camden, New Jersey, s
shipyard the author of his obituary termed "the finest shipbuilding
plant in existence." That claim is difficult to evaluate, but the firm
was important enough to be "a thorn in the flesh of the new shipping
combine." Morse's aggressiveness and quality workmanship were
graphically illustrated shortly before his death. He successfully
lobbied with the White House and Navy Department to give him a contract
for two cruisers originally awarded to William Cramp and Sons Ship and
Engine Company. Morse persuaded President Roosevelt his bids were lower,
"all things considered."
Apparently he planned to build a
completely integrated shipbuilding plant similar to the type of
installation Ford later created at the Rouge plant. He hoped to become
"entirely independent" of outside suppliers. His contemporaries feared
the facility Morse planned; the "shipbuilders" pool offered him $50,000
to refuse to bid on a job. Morse's fatal stroke occurred in Morgan's
office because the financier was in 1903 seeking an "alliance" between
Morse and other shipbuilding firms.
Morse's early death probably
robbed him of a major role in early 20th-century business history. As it
was, his career reflected themes prominent in late l9th-century American
business history. He deserves more study than he has received.
For Berks County, Pennsylvania, Morse's importance was that he provided
its citizens an "ordinary iron highway bridge." The Speicher Bridge
incorporated most of the advances metal bridge technology experienced
during the mid-19th century. This product of the young engineer's shop
served residents for almost a century.