Northampton Street Bridge

Northampton Street Bridge, a symbol of Lafayette College’s engineering legacy

Lafayette College’s engineering legacy was on full display during a recent ceremony commemorating the completed rehabilitation of the 127-year-old Northampton Street Bridge—known in the Easton-Phillipsburg area as the “free bridge.”

The unique cantilever truss bridge was designed by James Madison Porter III, a distinguished engineer and industrialist with strong Lafayette ties. He was the grandson of James Madison Porter, one of the College’s founders. Porter III also attended Lafayette, a Class of 1886 graduate.  He later served on the Lafayette civil engineering faculty from 1890 to 1917.

Porter’s iconic bridge is highly regarded by civil engineers and bridge historians. The American Society of Civil Engineers awarded National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark status to the bridge in 1995. The national website has bestowed a rare Historic Significance Rating of 10 (the maximum) for both national and local significance. 

The bridge was constructed in 1895 and 1896 for the Easton Delaware Bridge Co., a private shareholder-owned concern that operated the bridge and a predecessor wooden covered bridge as tolled crossings. Interestingly, Porter was the local bridge company’s president when the structure was sold to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and freed of tolls in August 1921. (At the turn of the 20th century, Porter also served as a consulting engineer to at least two other nearby Delaware River bridge companies—Alexandria Delaware Bridge Co., which owned the bridge at Frenchtown, N.J., and Riegelsville Delaware Bridge Co., which owned its namesake bridge at Riegelsville, Pa.)

The states conveyed ownership of Porter’s Easton-Phillipsburg bridge to the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission (DRJTBC) in July 1987. The DRJTBC has since operated and maintained the bridge using a share of revenue annually generated by its eight toll bridges.

Northampton Street Bridge at dusk

Northampton Street Bridge at dusk

The bridge’s recent rehabilitation project cost the DRJTBC roughly $15.5 million. Work included structural repairs, new walkways, re-anodized railings, and thorough cleaning and repainting of the entire steel superstructure. The project’s hallmark element was the installation of a programmable color-changing LED architectural lighting system that has generated resounding public approval from both sides of the river.

Recognizing Lafayette College’s ties to the bridge, the DRJTBC made it a point to have the College represented at the bridge’s rededication ceremony. Stephen Kurtz, P.E., associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Lafayette, filled that role by speaking about the bridge’s uniqueness and Porter’s role in designing the structure.

Stephen Kurtz, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, speaks at Northampton Street Bridge rededication ceremony

Stephen Kurtz, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, speaks at Northampton Street Bridge rededication ceremony

The ceremony included Easton Mayor Sal Panto, Phillipsburg Mayor Todd Tersigni, Secretary of Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Michael Carroll, and bridge commission officials. Former World Heavyweight Champion Larry Holmes led a countdown to the inaugural lighting of the bridge’s illumination system. The free-spirited Big Easy Easton Brass led attendees on a funky march across the gleaming bridge.

It could be said that the lights, which can be seen from some College Hill vantage points, are now spawning a new wave of appreciation for Prof. Porter’s venerable late-19th-century bridge.

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