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Friday, March 28, 2014

The St. James Church Road Bridge

SJCR, looping north and west past the church, 1881
Sorry this is a bit longer than normal, but I wanted to write everything up.

As some of you may recall from recent comments, a few weeks ago I went on a very nice walk in the woods with two guys who both had personal connections (unbeknownst to each other until we started walking and talking) to the area in question -- Bill Saadeh and Bill Harris. We met along the short stretch of Old Milltown Road behind the Harlan-Chandler Mill, just west of Limestone Road and south of Milltown. While I believe it's still technically a public road, it's really now a de facto private drive for the several houses along it. While we were standing there getting started one of the homeowners came out to see what these three men were doing standing around. We explained why we were there, and she was very nice and helpful (although I think the Bills' local connections helped ease any concerns she may have had).

We took a look at the old Harlan Mill (now apartments, I think), the old course of Milltown and Limestone Roads, and some of the old water features of the area. As we made our way south along Mill Creek, we found the old stone remains mentioned by Bill S. in one of his comments. There's not much there (in fact, you really have to look hard to see that it's man-made and not just an outcropping of rock), but we agreed that it probably was some sort of springhouse, quite possibly dating back to the Harlan Era (early 19th Century).

Scott and the Bills (which really sounds more like a description of me checking my mail) then worked our way back towards the creek, after a brief swing by Bill S.'s childhood home and a few sledding and playing stories. Our next destination was our main one of the day, a tad south along Mill Creek. After passing behind Bill H.'s wife's childhood home, we continued on to the general area where St. James Church Road (SJCR) would have crossed the creek. For those unfamiliar with the area, SJCR starts a bit south of its namesake, as a northerly split off of Telegraph Road. The road, once a continuous one from Telegraph Road to Milltown Road, is today split into two separate sections. The southern section goes only as far north as Kirkwood Highway. The northern section, which many probably don't even realize is there with that name, is located in the Village of Lindell and runs approximately from the old Lindell House over to Milltown Road.

SJCR 1868 -- Middle and northern sections
shown as a private drive

In between these two existing roads is a section of the old road that was abandoned sometime in the last century. Towards the northerly end of this abandoned stretch the road crossed over Mill Creek somewhere, making a left turn after hugging the creek for a few hundred yards. We were in search of evidence of the location of this missing crossing, and any remnants that might remain from the bridge. Bill S. recalled seeing a large timber sometime in the not too distant past that might have been a part of the bridge. When we made our way to what (according to the old maps) was the right place -- directly down from the Lindell House where there are about two empty lots -- we unfortunately could find no trace of the old timber.

The Dirt "Ramp"

What we did find, though, was a large outcrop of dirt on the east bank of the creek that looked like it was pointed across the (that day, at least) lazy stream. It was evident that the banks of the creek had eroded back significantly, and probably relatively recently, at least after the abandonment of the road. It was tempting to see this dirt mound as the lead-in to a bridge, but everything on the other side seemed to indicate that the bridge was a few yards farther up. What this might have been is just the last remaining part of the original roadbed, which due to the surrounding topography had to have been very close to the creek at that point. In fact, the rather steep hillside gets very close to the creek just beyond this point, so it's plain to see why the road turned to cross here.

So after what was a very enjoyable walk, we were frustratingly no closer to an answer regarding the bridge. The maps show it must have been right in that area, but there was no visible evidence as to exactly where. The following weekend Bill S. and I went for another scouting mission, this time attacking it from the south. We parked at the Oakwood Valley Swim Club, whose access road is actually the only remaining part of the "missing" middle section of SJCR, and headed north. Partway up, Bill found something that unbelievably managed to confuse us even more.

Wooden Planks in Mill Creek

Somewhere about halfway between the pool and the presumed bridge site, Bill found some concrete, stonework, and planking in and around the creek. This surprised us, because we didn't know of anything that should be in that location. The planks on the creek bed could have been washed down from farther upstream, but the concrete and stonework were both definitely in the banks. Two possible explanations came to mind, one immediately and one later, but neither one seems right.

What appears to be man-made stone work in the creek bank

First, we thought that maybe we'd found the remains of a later (early 20th Century) bridge, one not shown on the 19th Century maps. Maybe the Lindells had a new, lower bridge built in the early automobile era. However, nothing in the evidence (1937 aerial photo or 1940's map) shows a second bridge. They both still show the road hugging the creek and crossing near the Lindell House.

Concrete pieces on either side of the creek

The second theory occurred to me after looking again at the 1881 map, seen at the top of the post. If you'll notice, there's a house (S.D. Newlin) shown along the middle part of the road, between the road and the creek. Thinking more of the stonework and planking, I thought that maybe this was the remains of the house, and that Mill Creek at some point changed course and rerouted itself along a more easterly course, ending up running right through the house site. After looking at it all again, though, I think the house was a little further south, perhaps about where the swim club is now. Plus, the concrete pieces don't really look like what you'd expect to find in a house construction.

So the bottom line is that after all this exploring, nosing around, and thinking, not only do we not have a better answer to the first question (Exactly where was the bridge?), we now have a second question for which we have no answer (What is the "southern debris"?). If anyone has any better ideas, I'd sure love to hear them.


  1. I talked to my wife and brother-in-law (who is in town this weekend) about the southern piers. That is what they referred to as the Old St. James Road bridge over Mill Creek. My mother-in-law was told that the bridged was washed out during Hurricane Hazel in the late 1950's We all know that verbal histories have to be taken with a grain of salt, but also often have a kernal of truth in them. If the weather cooperates, we will try to check out the debris this weekend.

  2. I talked to my mother-in-law about the bridge; she moved to Limestone acres in 1959, the bridge was already down by then. Neighbors told her it was felled by Hurricane Hazel earlier that decade.

  3. Scott's post is a delightful summation of our two expeditions and the deepening mystery surrounding the Millcreek crossing of St. James Church Road. That second bridge further downstream has thrown a delicious complication into the mix. It's hard to deny two separate crossings; it looks like a matter of sequence and timing. But when? why? who? Right now my only thought is that the upper crossing is likely earlier.

  4. Bill, I think you are right. I wonder if the downstream bridge was a pedestrian bridge.

  5. Bill Harris has given an oral tradition that the lower bridge was destroyed in 1954 by Hurricane Hazel. We moved into Limestone Acres in 1954; older brother recalls wooden wreckage in the creek at that location which kind of dammed up the current. Eleven year olds tend to be more interested in setting up bottles on old wooden beams and pelting them with rocks than in exploring the history of the structures. So we get only a corresponding report on the timeframe of the demise of the lower bridge.
    Looking at the aerial photos on
    there is a feature in the southeast corner of the Lindell property, at the creek, where the remains that Scott photographed of the lower crossing now sit in Millcreek. Interestingly, the oldest photo, the one from 1937 seems to have the best resolution. As you progress through the1954, 1961 and 1968 shots, the feature is there, playing hide and seek right up against the creek, with no road leading out through the cleared ground toward Milltown Road. Did the lower crossing lead to (and end at) some man-made dwelling/structure on the west bank?
    Anybody out there with more?

  6. Any chance that it is the remnants of a dam? There are examples of mill dams built of stone and concrete and then capped with boards to carry the water over the falls. An example still in place today is that at Breck's Mill on the Brandywine River at Henry Clay.

    1. I can't rule anything out at this point. If it helps, my two answers to that question are no and yes. No, I wouldn't think so because none of the maps seems to show a race leaving the creek close enough to there. However, yes maybe, because the 1881 map at the top of the page seems to show what might be a dam and a back-up in the creek very near to where this is. But why there would be a dam and no race there is a mystery. The answer may have to do with the fact that A) the maps only give us occasional snapshots, and B) I'm not sure that they were quite as concerned with mill races as they were with roads and structures. Thanks for the idea, you might be right.

  7. Scott-
    My wife and I took a closer look at the second set of bridge ruins further downstream on Mill Creek. Between evidence on ground and a review of the USGS maps, I am convinced this is the lovation of tne old St. James Road bridge.

    If you want, we can meet at the ruins and discuss the evidence or I could just write up my thoughts as an addendum to this article. I want to take some better quality photos before publishing anything, but I think the evidence is pretty compelling

    1. Sounds interesting, Bill. (Sorry, I was away last week.) I'd love to get together and talk about it, but I'm not sure when I'd have time for that right now. We'll see if we can make something happen, but in the mean time, if you want to write it up, please feel free. I'd love to see what you've got.