The history of the Dingmans Bridge toll bridge is really an ongoing story that began over 280 years ago, as people settled in the area and needed to cross the river between what is now Dingmans Ferry, Pennsylvania and Sandyston Township, New Jersey. The bridge structure that we consider historic today was not always seen that way. In 1909, author CG Hine of The Old Mine Road had little to say about it. He wrote about the route along the river, “Dingman’s Ferry is now a modern iron bridge that is merely useful, and we pass on without even a look…” The bridge that was modern in 1909 celebrated 100 years at its present location in the year 2000. A reporter recently described the operation as ‘decidedly low-tech,’ with toll collectors taking cash tolls in much the same way they did over a hundred years ago.
Many people who grew up in Dingmans Ferry have shared with us their memories of crossing this bridge in years past. One gentleman remembered calling it the ‘clickity clackity bridge’ when he was little. If this man were to cross the Dingmans Bridge today, he wouldn’t be disappointed, because it does still make that famous clickity clackity sound. This noise can make first-time visitors nervous, and some even ask our toll takers if it’s safe to cross.
We smile when they ask, because we know how well maintained the bridge is. The deck is made of wooden planks that are bolted in place with large timber bolts, and double-nutted underneath. The noise starts when the boards season and shrink just enough to allow for a slight movement between the bolt head above and locked nuts below. When sections of deck boards are replaced, they are quiet for a while, and people think, "Oh-they’ve finally fixed those boards!" Then the new boards season a little, and that clickity clack comes right back! The Dingmans Bridge is inspected every year by a private engineering firm during a two-week period in June. The bridge closes most years for a brief period in September, while contractors perform proactive maintenance and repairs.
The story that leads to the current bridge began in 1735, when a Dutchman named Andrew Dingman moved from New York to Pennsylvania. He was a pioneer settler on the bank of the Delaware River, in a place that became known as Dingmans Choice. Andrew Dingman saw potential for growth in this area, and built a ferry boat from trees that he cut with a hand ax. He ran the ferry crossing himself at first, then hired Joseph Ennis to operate it. The business grew as roads were built leading to the ferry on both sides of the river. During the French and Indian War, many settlers used the ferry to escape to safety in New Jersey.
Andrew Dingman and his progeny ran this ferry service for over 100 years. In 1803 Andrew Dingman’s grandson, Judge Daniel Westbrook Dingman, built the stone house that still stands on the property. Two earlier houses had been washed away by floods.
As the area grew, there were problems with the ferry service. High water, ice chunks in the river, and timber rafts floating down the river all caused challenges for the ferry. People also grew impatient with the delays when the ferry was busy. In 1834, Daniel Dingman and several others took action to incorporate the Dingmans Choice and Delaware Bridge Company with a charter enacted by both Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
In 1836, a wooden covered bridge was built and the ferry was retired. This bridge lasted until 1847, when heavy rain brought down the Milford Bridge upstream, which was also a covered bridge. The Milford Bridge traveled down river and took out the Dingmans Bridge. The ferry was back in service until 1850, when a second covered bridge was built. A few years later, as the Milford Herald described it, “A terrific wind storm lifted the bridge bodily from the piers, carried it above the same and dropped it in the river.”
In 1856 a third bridge was built, this time by Skinner and Clark. Soon afterwards, Dingmans Choice and Delaware Bridge Company charged them with shoddy construction. The New Jersey Herald reported this bridge’s demise in September 1863, “The bridge at Dingmans, over the Delaware River, yielded to the winds what the water had vainly tried to accomplish, and went over during the heavy gust of wind on last Friday afternoon. The structure, or a large portion of it, went floating down the river in gallant style. Where it brought up is not known to us. The bridge was old and had been considered unsafe for heavy teams for some time past.” The ferry was once again put into operation. In 1868, the post office department changed the name of the town from Dingmans Choice to Dingmans Ferry, as it is still called today.
In 1877, the property and business were purchased by John Kilsby, who had married into the Dingman family. At this time a larger boat, referred to as a ‘flat boat,’ was put into service. This ferry was about 21’ x 45’ and was guided by a cable across the river. People often grew impatient with the slow service of the ferry, especially for those crossing from New Jersey into Pennsylvania. People on the New Jersey side of the river had to ring a bell to alert the ferry operator, then wait for him to cross the river to pick them up. One doctor in New Jersey addressed the problem by attaching a basket to the ferry cable and pulling himself across the river. In spite of this, owner John Kilsby resisted pressure to replace the ferry with another bridge, maybe because of the problems with earlier bridges.
The ferry service continued until 1900, when the owners of the Horseheads Bridge Company in Horseheads New York became interested in it. The three owners—brothers James, Will and E.A. Perkins-—were in possession of an old railroad bridge that had once crossed the Susquehanna River in Muncy, Pennsylvania. This truss bridge was made of pin-hung wrought iron, and had originally consisted of five spans. The bridge had been built by the Phoenix Iron Company in Philadelphia. The Perkins brothers brought three spans of this bridge to Dingmans Ferry and erected them at the same location as the previous three bridges, but on new piers that were six feet higher than the old ones. This bridge has remained in service now for roughly 115 years at its current location.
The Dingmans Choice and Delaware Bridge Company has remained privately owned through all this time. Most of its 50-some shareholders are descendants of the Perkins brothers from Horseheads. In 1906 the state offered to buy the bridge but the owners declined. Many other private bridges were purchased in the 1920’s, when New Jersey & Pennsylvania began a joint effort to purchase all private bridges. However, the Dingmans Bridge was never purchased. In 2003, the Federal Highway Authority listed only 16 privately owned toll bridge in the country. One of the two in New Jersey has since closed, and the Dingmans Bridge is the only one in Pennsylvania.
Unlike its predecessors, the current bridge has survived many floods in its 100-plus years of service. In the Pumpkin Flood of 1903, the bridge between Matamoras and Port Jervis came down, but the Dingmans Bridge remained. In ‘The History of the River Road,’ an account of the Dingmans Bridge during this flood reads, “Cattle were rescued by driving them across the bridge to the higher Jersey side. So rapid was the rise of the water that those who drove the cattle across the bridge could not get back. It should be noted that the new bridge withstood the ravaging flood, and for the first time in the history of the crossing at Dingmans, a violent storm did not carry away the bridge.” It was the first time, but not the last time that this bridge beat out a storm. In the flood of 1955, locals remember the water lapping at the wooden deck of the bridge, but it survived. Recent floods in 1981, 2004, 2005 and 2006 also challenged many local bridge structures, but the Dingmans Bridge remained safe and strong.
In the early 1960’s, the Army Corp. of Engineers devised a plan to dam the river just south of the Dingmans Bridge, at Tocks Island. The bridge owners were told that the Dingmans Bridge would eventually be underwater. They continued to operate the bridge, but held off on substantial maintenance and repairs for several years. By the 1980’s, the Tocks Island Dam project had lost momentum and funding, and the bridge owners faced many years of catching up on routine bridge maintenance. Although the Tocks Island Dam project was formally deauthorized in 1992, talk still arises about building a dam or a series of flood gates somewhere along the Delaware, as one way to control flooding.
In the face of age, floods and dams, the Dingmans Bridge continues to provide a convenient, picturesque crossing for over 1.5 million people each year. Some look forward to the day when the bridge might be replaced by a more modern structure complete with EZ-Pass, but many appreciate the personal touch of tolls being collected by hand in exchange for a friendly greeting.
Frank T. Dale “Our Delaware River Ferries” Country Chronicles June 2002
Frank T. Dale “Bridges Over the Delaware River” Rutgers University Press 2003
Joseph A. Gambardello “Rare Bridges to the Past” The Philadelphia Inquirer August 11, 2003
William F. Henn “The Story of the River Road” 1975
C.G. Hine “The Old Mine Road” 1909
Bruce Scruton “Treasured Places- Dingmans Bridge” November 20, 2006
Jennie Sweetman “Dingmans Bridge fourth in line of river crossings from Layton” New Jersey Herald March 5, 2000