Crossing the Divide

The Challenge of Bridging Elk Creek


Prologue:
In early August 1926, over 100 people gathered at Elk Creek, where the state highway connecting Fairview and Franklin Township crossed the stream as reported by The Erie Daily Times. In attendance were Fairview and Franklin residents as well as county and local officials. It was a momentous occasion as they were there to dedicate a new concrete bridge across Elk Creek. Chief among the presenters were George Howard of Howard Falls and Clarence Thompson, who we wrote about in another recent blog, “Hillside“. At the ceremony, a letter by George Howard was read by his granddaughter which will be featured in a later blog.

The great gorge of Elk Creek had forever been a formidable barrier to any form of transportation, and crossing the stream had been especially problematic ever since a crude road was established nearly 80 years earlier. Now designated State Route 272, it still had to snake precariously down to the valley floor and likewise up the other side. However, this new bridge replaced earlier wooden structures that were narrow and dangerous. For the residents of the area, this was a definite time of celebration.

PA State Route 272 Linking Fairview and Franklin Twp
Circa 1923

Our Story:
The settlement of Erie County began in the late 1700s, as described in our earlier blog, “Early Surveys of Erie County.” Land along the Erie lake plain was in high demand for farming, and as roads developed along the lake shore, many settlers arrived by the very early 1800s from New York state and New England. Some stayed, while others continued to Ohio and further west.

But up until the 1800s, no significant roads existed in southern Erie County. Then, finally, in about 1802-04, the State of Pennsylvania constructed a route across the northern tier of the state, the westernmost segment running east-west across present-day Franklin Township, as it linked Waterford and Lexington (now modern-day Platea). When completed, that road (now called Old State Road) was the first road into the area of Franklin Township.

Old State Road cuts across what would become Franklin Twp.
(shown as ‘Elk Creek’ Twp. in 1820 map)

Nonetheless, as shown on that 1820 map, no north-south roads existed in this area because of the formidable gorge of Elk Creek as it flowed east-west across western Erie County to its confluence with Lake Erie, just west of Girard.

James Ryan and his family came to the area in 1808, purchasing 150 acres that spanned the Elk Creek gorge near where it would be bridged. Without a bridge or road, it is recalled that he had to let his belongings down from his wagon above, into the gorge by rope. The family settled on the flat plain in the wide gorge there, and for many years his old wagon remained above the gorge as a landmark.

To the west of the Ryan farm, Elk Creek continues to cut down into the shale on its way to Lake Erie, forming a deeper and deeper gorge, making crossings increasingly challenging. However, to the east, Elk Creek eventually becomes a surface stream toward its origins south of Erie. Thus by heading upstream, the Ryans were able to develop a road, now Van Camp Road, that was able to cross Elk Creek by portage in the Struchen Flats area toward McKean.

Meanwhile at Howard Falls, Levi Howard had been operating his stone quarry, furnishing material for the Erie Extension Canal. In the 1840s, the stone was transported west to build the locks to carry the Canal over the St Lawrence continental divide on its way into Erie. In the 1850s and 1860s, stone was needed in Erie for the new Court House, Girard for the Civil War monument, and the surrounding area building boom.

To transport that stone Levi and others built a corduroy road north across Elk Creek and onto the Lake Plain, where additional transportation was readily available. A corduroy road, made by placing logs perpendicular to the road’s direction, improved impassable dirt roads. This road would eventually become the State Route 272 into Fairview, and the approaches to Elk Creek, locally called “Ryan Hill.”

Illustration of soldiers building a corduroy road near Weldon, Va., during the Civil War.

With the corduroy road, a bridge over Elk Creek was required. The first bridges were simple constructions, narrow and poorly maintained. George Howard, in his remarks at the dedication of the new concrete bridge in 1926, recalled when Moses Baker first brought his family from Ohio to Franklin Twp. in the early 1850s.

He recalled that Moses “was the first to cross a small bridge which had been built across Elk Creek. He came during the winter months, and because of the snow and ice on the narrow bridge, was forced first to help his family across and then run his horses across to keep the old-fashioned sled from sliding off the bridge.

As other north-south roads began to be developed in Franklin Twp., each was faced with a decision as to whether to attempt to cross Elk Creek. Mohawk road just to the west of the Falls turned west as it approached the gorge of Falls Run, as formidable as that of Elk Creek. Mohawk would continue westerly to join Brooks Road.

For many years, that next road to the west, Brooks Road, did cross Elk Creek and is shown on maps as late as the 1950s as still making that crossing. Whether a bridge or portage crossed the stream is unknown, but by the late 1900s, the roads leading to the crossing had been abandoned.

Next west is Gudgenville Road, and to reach Elk Creek, the road must snake and switch back down each side of the gorge and back up the opposing side. The bridge was constructed circa 1868 and was a landmark-covered bridge for over 100 years. Destroyed by arson in 2008, a modern bridge was built to replace it.

Because of its direct connection into the Fairview area and the Fairview Station of the Lake plain railroad, that early corduroy road needed to transport Howard Quarry stone continued to be improved compared to the other rural roads crossing Elk Creek. Thus by the early 1900s, it had been designated the PA State Route 272.

Now a state highway, improvements continued. A 1941 map of the area shows significant changes. While the approach to the bridge over Elk Creek from the south still snakes down to the bridge, the road in other sections had been straightened and connected directly to the road coming out of Fairview. In addition, a bypass was created at Howard Falls, diverting the increasing traffic directly south. Finally, the Route was now known as PA Route 98 on that 1941 map, its current designation.

By 1941 State Route 272 has become PA Route 98, with a bypass around Howard Falls and a more direct route into Fairview.

Epilogue:
Levi Howard’s corduroy road became State Route 272 with a modern concrete bridge dedicated in 1926, and by 1941 it was designated PA Route 98 with additional improvements to the roadway. However, the dangerous approaches down the Elk Creek Gorge to the bridge remained.

Finally, in the 1960s, a new bridge was constructed over Elk Creek, eliminating those dangerous approaches. Today traffic does not even slow on its journey over that historic area. Gone too is the bridge that was proudly dedicated in 1926, demolished as the new bridge was placed in service. However, after crossing Elk Creek heading south, the one-mile climb toward the St Lawrence Continental Divide is a firm reminder that Ryan Hill will forever remain.

Gone are the crossings at Struchen Flats and Brooks Road, and the westerly connection of Mohawk Road to Brooks Road has long been abandoned. The only remaining local gorge crossing is that of Gudgenville Road, but now without the covered bridge that stood proudly there for over 100 years.

In a way, the great Gorges of Elk Creek and of Falls Run to this day keep northwestern Franklin Township a rural, nearly unbroken forest, perhaps just the way Nature always intended.

DDHoward
November 2022

One thought on “Crossing the Divide

  1. As always, thank you for your research and interesting bits of our history. Well done.

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