John J. Matheussen
is the chief executive officer
of the Delaware River
and president of PATCO
Today, we celebrate the birthday of one of the region's most important structures. You see it all the time as you drive through the region. You may drive over it on your way to work, the "game" or the Shore. It is an iconic landmark in the Delaware Valley: the Walt Whitman Bridge.
For 50 years, the Walt Whitman Bridge has played an important role in supporting and expanding our local economy. Since it opened for business, the bridge has altered the regional skyline, shaped local history, and fundamentally changed the way people live. Its creation connected the two states and enhanced relations with neighboring communities.
The idea for another bridge to cross the Delaware River came to light almost as soon as the Ben Franklin Bridge was completed in 1926. (It was called the Delaware River Bridge then.) Initially, there were plans to dig a tunnel under the river to connect South Philadelphia and Gloucester City. Over time, a bridge became a more viable option. Construction began in 1953.
Four years later, 10,000 tons of steel and 4,000 feet of cable had come together to create what would be named the "Most Beautiful Structure of Steel of 1957" by the American Institute of Steel Construction.
On May 15, 1957, New Jersey Gov. Robert B. Meyner and Pennsylvania Auditor General Charles C. Smith dedicated the bridge, which was then opened to pedestrians. The first automobiles crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge just past midnight the next day. There was so much excitement around the opening that Delaware River Port Authority vehicles had to serve as pace cars to prevent drivers from speeding across the bridge to be able to claim they were the first to cross. (It worked; there were no accidents.)
This triumph of engineering linking Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey enabled a much higher volume of traffic to flow back and forth. Until then, most commuters used the Benjamin Franklin Bridge to cross the Delaware River; others took ferries to get to their destination.
Since its creation, the Walt Whitman Bridge has served as a major contributor to the Delaware Valley's economy by providing access to the South Philadelphia sports complex, the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the Philadelphia Food Distribution Center, port terminals on both sides of the river, South Jersey's Black Horse Pike communities, the Atlantic City casinos, and the Shore resorts.
Today, the bridge carries more than 120,000 vehicles a day, making it the most heavily trafficked bridge spanning the Delaware. Since it opened for business, it has carried 1.6 billion vehicles.
For 50 great years, the Walt Whitman Bridge has helped to keep the region moving. In events during the weeks to come, we will rededicate ourselves to remembering the Walt Whitman Bridge's vibrant past and commit ourselves to ensuring its important future.