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May 25, 2014

Bridge a site of death, destruction, fascination: Span still standing, drawing visitors

— For Ken Smith, the Stone Bridge spanning the Conemaugh River just outside Johnstown’s business district is inspiring, an example of the power and stability of a structure built with integrity and intelligence.

Smith is a civil engineer who lives more than 400 miles west of Johnstown, but thinks everyone in his business needs to make what he termed a “pilgrimage” to the seven-arch stone structure that played a major role in the devastating 1889 Johnstown Flood.

“To stand there and see that bridge still standing, it meant a great deal to me and certainly helped me over the years in the kind of work I do,” Smith said in a telephone interview from his office in Indianapolis.

Smith lives in Brownsburg, Indiana, and is associate director of the division of water for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. He has been so inspired by the bridge that he developed a PowerPoint presentation after visiting Johnstown several years ago and regularly presents at civil engineering seminars.

“I encourage everyone (in the business) I’ve spoken to over the years to make that pilgrimage to Johnstown,” he said. “This is a place where you can truly understand what your profession is about.”

‘Hundreds of bodies’

The massive arch span, built of native sandstone for the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1885-87, has for 127 years carried east and west bound trains across the Conemaugh. It stopped tons of debris from as far as 11 miles up stream after the South Fork Dam failed and flooded the city in 1889.

For many years, the railroad built steel bridges needed for its trains to move over waterways, but that started to change when in 1885 work began on what was the first stone bridge of the Pennsylvania Railroad system, said Richard Burkert, president and CEO of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association.

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