In southeastern Pennsylvania, 20 miles south of Philadelphia, there’s an old seaport town that is struggling to survive. Once a booming hub of textile and metal manufacturing, its 6 square miles are now littered with boarded storefronts, gutted houses, and empty buildings. Situated along the Delaware River, the city of Chester was once desirable for its proximity to the railways and its location along the river. People wanted to move there.
While visiting my grandparents’ house growing up, one of my favorite photos was in their family room, propped up on an aging étagère between history books and travel guides. Held within a thin, dusted bronze frame, it was a brown, rose gold depiction of a bridge mid-construction, taken in Chester at sunset in the early 1970s. The bridge was cut in half, still waiting to be joined. A jumble of two sloping pieces of latticed metal on large wooden beams, it looked surreal, sitting in the middle of the Delaware River against a sleeping sky. But when it was joined, it would become, as I see it, one of the main reasons people still travel to Chester today.
In fact, when I worked in Chester for a tech company that had commandeered an abandoned power plant along the river, the bridge was a daily sight on my commute, and the only path to the office for my coworkers who lived in New Jersey. I always thought it was so majestic, albeit sad, against the backdrop of a major league soccer stadium built along the river that created jobs for the city of Chester but didn’t quite boost its revenue enough.
Once a Center of Family Life
In the early 1900s, at the height of Chester’s economic peak, my great-grandparents on my mother’s side of the family were among the people who wanted to move there.
They raised their children, 9 on my grandmother’s side and 1 on my grandfather’s side, within a bustling community. My grandmother’s side became active members of St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church on 7th Street, while my grandfather’s side owned both a general store and a pharmacy downtown.
They formed friendships, sent their children to Chester High School (for my grandfather) or Notre Dame Catholic Girls High School (for the women on my grandmother’s side), gathered for holidays, and eventually, my grandmother and grandfather met and married.
But in the 1960s, the manufacturing industries moved out of Chester, and with it, the people.
Only one family within my great-grandparents’ extended family still lives in Chester today.
Capturing an Era
In spite of its economic decline, however, I see the city of Chester as a main thoroughfare for residents in the greater Philadelphia area to travel to nearby New Jersey, thanks to the Commodore Barry Bridge.
In 1969, the county commissioned building the bridge over the Delaware River to connect Chester, and the state of Pennsylvania, with the state of New Jersey. From 1969 – 1974, in front of vacant factories, as families packed up generations of belongings and moved away, it was built.
In 1973, after having just finished work as a general surgeon at Sacred Heart Hospital, my grandfather captured that photo that sat on my grandparents’ étagère for all of my childhood.
A Photo for a Generation
My grandfather was always taking photos, so his stopping to take a photo of construction on his commute home was nothing out of the ordinary.
That photo of the Commodore Barry Bridge was among several photos of Chester that my grandfather, known as Grandad to my siblings and I and as Uncle Joe to his many nieces and nephews on my grandmother’s side, printed and kept over the years.
It was also, as I recently learned, a lifelong memory of my cousin, who is among the only family still living in Chester today.
So when my cousin’s wife was searching for a Christmas present for him for this year, she thought of Uncle’s Joe’s photo of the Commodore Barry Bridge.
The photo was a favorite of my cousin’s, as he remembers visiting my grandparents while growing up and seeing it in their home, in the same spot in their family room as I remember.
I was more than happy to make a copy of the photo, which now sits in my living room, in the same dusted bronze frame, its velvet backing a little ajar after years of wear.
Technology makes it easy to make copies of photos in minutes now, for a mere few dollars, which makes me wonder why I haven’t done that with the hundreds of others of historical photos that Grandad took. But, that’s for another blog post.
Now, the sunset bridge photo, taken in Chester in 1973, sits in another home, for new generations to remember.