A collector of castoffs now owns Upper Salford bridge
By Jeremy Roebuck
Inquirer Staff Writer
While his childhood friends spent their days on the sports fields, Mike Hart spent his digging through dumps.
Trolling the detritus for old bottles and kerosene lamps, he found fascination in objects other people cast aside.
Now 49 and head of his own historic building preservation firm, Hart, of Harleysville, plans to take home one of his greatest finds yet.
He’s getting the bridge no one wanted.
Hart has agreed to remove a 35-year-old wooden railroad trestle that officials in neighboring Upper Salford have twice tried to sell at Internet auction without success.
Using its sturdy timbers of yellow pine, he hopes to construct a 30-foot water tower on the site of the general-store museum that doubles as his home.
“It won’t be a bridge again, but it doesn’t really lend itself to being a bridge again,” he said. “At least it’s going to stay local.”
When Upper Salford officials first listed the township trestle on the Internet auction site MuniciBid.com, the sale drew attention from around the world.
The rickety wooden bridge is a familiar sight to regular attendees of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, held at the fairgrounds just yards away.
Constructed by the Reading Railroad in 1910 and rebuilt in 1975, the 16-foot span connects Salford Station Road and serves as a handy landmark for cyclists and runners on the repurposed Perkiomen Trails below.
But four years after the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation closed it to pedestrian and motorist traffic, citing concerns about its structural integrity, the township decided the bridge had to go.
Times are tough, however, and the township did not have the money to pay for removal.
One contractor estimated the local government would need to spend at least $100,000 – nearly one-sixth of its annual budget – to take down the span and start over.
Township supervisors posted it online, hoping to find a bidder who would cover removal costs and pay as little as $100 to take home a piece of history.
But despite attracting more than a thousand hits to the auction website, the Upper Salford bridge failed to draw a single bid after two separate auctions, the latest of which wrapped up earlier this month.
Supervisors Chairman Theodore F. Poatsy Jr. said that although some interested parties had come to look at the trestle, none made an offer. He said there were concerns about the toxic oil pitch known as creosote that the railroad used to weatherproof the structure.
“That turned some potential bidders off,” he said. “Because of the way the railroad had constructed it, the wood could only be used for the same type of outdoor purpose.”
But that didn’t deter Hart. He’d made his career preserving historic barns and houses, and was accustomed to dealing with older, commonly used building materials now considered dangerous. He’d had his eye on the bridge since it was condemned.
He offered to take it down for $2,000 even before the township put it up for auction.
“I’ve crossed that bridge 1,000 times,” he said. “It sort of set off a panic in me when they put it up for auction. I wanted those timbers.”
Hart wasn’t exactly unknown to township leaders. His home and museum – housed in the old Kulp General Store along Harleysville’s Main Street – has become something of a local landmark.
Its two period gas pumps out front, with their circular meters and fresh paint jobs, often draw passersby who stop for photos. Hart routinely welcomes tour groups into his house to show off his working Victrola, a jangling Nickelodeon player piano, and the restored shop front stocked afresh with all manner of household goods, from 1920s-era penny candy to boxes of rat poison.
Under the terms of his tentative agreement with the township, Hart won’t pay a dime for the bridge but will remove it at his own expense. That will allow the supervisors to take the money they would have had to spend on removal and devote it to a permanent concrete replacement, Poatsy said.
Hart hopes to feature the 35-year-old timbers as part of a water tower in a planned expansion of his museum site. The new structure is expected to sit beside a pond and a windmill – all circulating water from an underground spring, now gurgling in his basement.
“The more vintage products you can use, the more authentic it all seems,” Hart said. “Those timbers will just give it the right feel.”
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