There is an undeniable allure of a historic river town, with its faded images of steamers and sternwheelers. Before planes, trains and automobiles there were boats, barges and ferries, plying the waters with the necessities of a growing nation. The grand sternwheelers brought romance to the river with their luxurious cabins and upscale style, while packet boats delivered everything from cotton to cookware. Located at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers, Marietta certainly saw its fair share of river traffic, and the steamboats that ruled the waterways are forever embedded in the city’s history.
Before Marietta earned its reputation as a bustling river town, even before it was established in 1788, there was Fort Harmar, built three years earlier on the west bank of the Muskingum. It didn’t take long for settlers to populate the area close to the fort, and over the next decade the fort gave way to the expansion of Marietta on both sides of the river. Although Marietta encompassed both east and west banks, the “west side” kept its identity as Harmar Village or simply Harmar. As the city grew so did the need for a direct route between Marietta and Harmar, and in 1856 a covered bridge was built. Set on massive piers and spanning nearly 900 feet, the bridge joined the divided sections of the city and made life easier for its residents. But it wasn’t long until a new mode of travel chugged its way into the landscape, and the countryside was soon tattooed with railroad tracks.
In 1873 the B & O Railroad took over the Harmar Bridge and replaced the covered structure with tracks. The span was actually four sections, and one of those sections could rotate, or swing open. Remember, the river was still busy with boats and steamers, and some were too large to travel beneath the railroad bridge. The solution was to have one section of the bridge swing wide, turned by a huge gear mechanism at the midpoint of the section. A giant metal “key” with an attached crossbar was fitted into the mechanism. A group of men would push the crossbar counter-clockwise, working in unison as the span swung open.
More than once, the deluge of floodwaters damaged the bridge, destroying the three stationary sections in 1913. But it survived and served the railroad until it was abandoned in the 1960s and donated to the Historic Harmar Bridge Company. That meant the Company was the proud owner of the oldest swinging railroad bridge in the country, and the only one still in operation. Converting it to a pedestrian bridge seemed the perfect use for such a historic structure and what better way to introduce visitors to Harmar Village? Thus in the 1980s, the pedestrian walkway was added to the original rail structure, providing a scenic walk the entire length.
Rusted spikes poke from the wood, the iron rails that once whistled and clanked are long gone.
In Marietta, you’ll find the approach to the bridge at the shaded end of Butler Street where it meets Post Street. If you prefer to bicycle, you can rent a bike at the Harbor concession stand. Take a moment to check out the metal relics of the steamboat era, including “baby” steam engines and a paddle wheel. Then take the short stairs to the foot of the bridge and have your camera ready.
The walking bridge is wood planks laid across steel beams, with metal lattice railing. The planks are narrow and you can glimpse the swirling water between each row. Just over the south railing and off-limits (at least in theory, there are always mischievous daredevils) is the original railroad bridge, its hulking wood ties splintered and aged, grass sprouting in the pitted surface of some. Rusted spikes poke from the wood, the iron rails that once whistled and clanked are long gone.
As you venture out over the water the wood may creak and bow a bit under your feet, but rest assured the structure has been reinforced and declared safe. As you get closer to the center, you’ll begin to realize the bridge has a vintage beauty. Huge flower containers hang from chains, the blooms maintained by dedicated volunteers. If your timing is just right, you might even spot a wood duck trying to nest among the flowers.
Another trend that is embraced by many is actually an annual celebration—of the bridge, its history, and Harmar Village. For over thirty years the village has hosted Harmar Days, with vendors, entertainment, antique cars and of course the festival’s star, the Harmar Bridge. In recent years a bridge turning ceremony has been added, taking place at noon each day of the festival. Not only does the turning keep the mechanism in working order, but it also gives people a rare chance to experience the way railroads and riverboats worked in harmony.
Surprisingly quiet, the bridge begins to inch away from its bed and swivels out over the water.
As noon approaches, Chuck Swaney calls for his group of volunteers and they excitedly gather on the span. Beneath the warped plywood cover lie the huge gears with an opening cut to allow the “key.” As the key and crossbar are fitted to the gears, Chuck works the crowd to prevent overcrowding. Too many people on any part of the swinging section could mean a malfunction or even an accident. Once the volunteers start turning and the bridge starts to move, anyone on the swinging section is there to stay. If you aren’t bold enough to stay on the swinging span, try to secure a spot near the edge of the stationary part, the view will make it worth your effort.
The swinging and stationary sections are attached by a simple metal grate, and a few twists of the screwdriver free them from each other. When Chuck gives the signal, the group of volunteers lean into the crossbars and start their small circular walk on the plywood. Surprisingly quiet, the bridge begins to inch away from its bed and swivels out over the water. The volunteers push, the gears turn, and the bridge keeps moving until it makes a right angle to its regular position. Someone on the bridge communicates with the captain of the Valley Gem, Marietta’s resident sternwheeler, and in a few moments, the ship appears around the river’s bend and nears the bridge. As the Valley Gem glides under the open structure, the passengers wave and shout while the people on the bridge cheer and wave back. Modern powerboats, pontoons, and even kayakers have gathered in the water below for the sight, and they add to the celebration.
As the Valley Gem continues down the river to the Ohio, the volunteers begin their rotation again, this time in the other direction. The span smoothly swivels back into position and under Chuck’s guidance, it stops and settles right at home base. The volunteers wipe their brows as the metal grates are bolted back into place. The crowd on the swinging span disperses in either direction, toward the charming downtown of historic Marietta or the quaint shops of Harmar Village. Everyone on the bridge, and those watching from the riverbanks, realize they just shared a very special encounter. They’ve gained a new appreciation for the historic gem that unites Marietta and Harmar Village and created a sepia-tinted memory in the process.