If you want to experience the quintessence of summer time in a small town, be sure to mark your calendar for Harmar Days next year. This two-day festival, held annually the last weekend of July, is a celebration of life in a small river community and a showcase for the historic Harmar Bridge. It’s also the primary fund raiser for the Historic Harmar Bridge Company in their effort to maintain the bridge and keep it functional.
Harmar Village has a long history, with Fort Harmar being built even before Marietta was established in 1788. As the area was settled and Marietta grew along both sides of the river, the “west side” kept its identity as Harmar Village. When the two sides needed a direct route to make travel easier, a massive covered bridge was built in 1856. Then along came the railroads, laying tracks from one end of the nation to the other. B & O Railroad took over the covered bridge in 1873 and replaced it with railroad tracks.
The river boat traffic was not about to halt for a railroad, so the bridge was constructed in 4 spans. Three of those spans are stationary, while one swivels. A giant metal “key” with an attached crossbar fits into the mechanism, and a group of men would push the crossbar clockwise to open the span and allow the boats to pass.
Even through several major floods, the bridge survived and served the railroad until the 1960s. It was abandoned by B & O, then donated to the Historic Harmar Bridge Company. That means the Company owns the oldest swinging railroad bridge in the country, and the only one still operating.
The bridge has been converted to a walking bridge, with the remnants of the old railroad running alongside the walkway. Harmar Bridge is one of the must-see attractions of Marietta, connecting the Harbor on Butler Street to Maple Street in Harmar Village. It’s a bit creaky, a bit rusty, and totally charming—and a perfect backdrop for photos. You can admire the view, watch for the boats to pass under, or check out the “love locks” that adorn the structure.
If you walk across the bridge to Harmar Days you’ll sense the festive atmosphere as you approach the landing (an old fashion steam whistle adds to the mood with its sporadic blasts). Maple Street is lined with the tents of artists and vendors, food concessions and a Country Store booth. Visitors stroll the street, browsing the shops and greeting friends and neighbors.
On each day of the festival, Chuck calls for a group of volunteers to turn the bridge. They gather just before noon, and as they prepare the crossbar the spectators begin to fill the spans. A small number of people are permitted to remain on the moving span while the others stake out their spots for the best view from land or walkway. On the water below, kayaks, canoes and small boats have gathered and their presence is a fun addition to the ceremony.
As the volunteers push, the gears turn and the bridge begins to pivot away from its bed. It moves surprisingly smoothly, and not creaking as I had expected. When it stops at a right angle to the stationary spans, there is ample room for large boats to pass through. If you are lucky the Valley Gem will be waiting around the river bend, and coordinate its approach to the opening of the bridge. The passengers hoot and wave, along with the “land lubbers” who have just enjoyed a unique experience.
You have to admit, you will never get a chance to celebrate the history of a railroad bridge and witness its turning outside of our little town. For over thirty years the community has shown their support by attending the festival and this year was no different. According to event coordinator Chuck Swaney, nearly 1,000 people visited the Village and roughly $3,000 was raised. Those funds will help with the maintenance and care of the landing and the bridge itself, ensuring that downtown Marietta and Harmar will keep their special connection.