Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bridging Christmas memories

Nostalgia can strike without warning and sometimes it's funny what kind of warm, fuzzy memories resurface from long-locked and forgotten time vaults.

Christmas can be especially notorious for nostalgia: The smell of Moravian sugar cakes rising in the oven, a certain carol, a certain card, a special toy can all carry incredible powers of memory resurrection.

For me, it's a bridge.

The Hill-to-Hill Bridge, to be exact.


The Hill-to-Hill Bridge spans the Lehigh River and connects Bethlehem, PA, with South Bethlehem. (The bridge also spans the Lehigh-Delaware Canal and, in its heyday, about 15 railroad tracks of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which was headquartered in Bethlehem. The railroad was the primary transportation artery for bustling Bethlehem Steel, whose blast furnaces sat below and within walking distance of the bridge).

This linen postcard shows how the bridge was lit. What, no traffic?
 The bridge itself was somewhat unique. It had concrete arches over the river and canal and supporting steel trestles over the railroad.

On top of that, it had something like six or seven feeder ramps, which made it possible for traffic to cross the multiple railroad tracks below without stopping for trains, which otherwise would have been nearly impossible for the unwary driver.

Even more uniquely, the bridge formed a "T" across the north side of the river, with the right branch taking you directly to downtown Bethlehem.

I was a kid living in next door Fountain Hill, a quaint bedroom community for Bethlehem before there were bedroom communities. Whenever we went to Bethlehem to visit the Kessler grandparents, we'd use the Hill-to-Hill Bridge. It was magnificent. It was an adventure. I was always in awe of Bethlehem Steel and the railroads. And, even as a kid, I think I appreciated the uniqueness of the bridge itself, which was built in 1921-24 and hailed an engineering marvel in its day.

The Christmas tree, with Central Moravian Church in the background.
Now throw Christmas into the mix.

Bethlehem, founded by Moravians in the 1740s, styles itself as "Christmas City USA." Christmas is everywhere. Moravian stars are everywhere. Bethlehem is the first city I can remember when residents willingly gave up their colored Christmas lights to put white candles in their windows. It was awesome.

The bridge, of course, was a canvas just waiting for its art. Consequently, the bridge was covered with Christmas lights from one end to another. At the "T"  and in the line of traffic — there was a huge Christmas tree (made up of smaller trees, I think) that was lighted. When you're a kid, this is incredible stuff. It's beyond incredible.

Modern Downtown Bethlehem, with the star on top of South Mountain.
To top all of this off, the bridge lies at the foot of South Mountain. Perfect. The mountain was just the platform Bethlehem needed for its famous 80-foot electric star. I never could quite figure out what I wanted to see the most — the bridge or the star.

Fortunately, I got to see both. It was like my head was on a swivel — looking at the lights, looking at the trains, looking at the star, looking at the steelyard. I guess Dad was looking at traffic.

Naturally, it couldn't last. Bethlehem Steel, which provided materials for the Golden Gate Bridge back in the 1930s, couldn't compete with overseas interests and closed its furnaces. The place now features a casino (which had originally been intended for Gettysburg.) The bridge underwent renovations and lost its "T" intersection when Rte. 378 came through from the north. A Christmas tree now stands out of the traffic on a sidewalk area. The branch of the "T" going into Bethlehem is now one way, which still gives you a great view of Central Moravian Church, the grand dame of all Moravian churches, featuring its signature bell tower.

The nostalgia hits hard, and willingly I take it with a grateful smile.

By the way, one of the best parts about leaving the Kessler grandparents after one of those holiday feasts was that we had to go back home — back over the bridge.

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