By Rick Dapp
The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Bridge, (aka the State Street Bridge) is traversed by many entering and leaving downtown Harrisburg. Commuters and travelers hurriedly work their way past the towering pylons, each crowned with an eagle overlooking the capitol complex, at the western end of the bridge. Approaching the bridge from the west, drivers who are willing to steal a quick glance at the pylons will notice mysterious metal doors at the base of each, chained closed and forbidding in their appearance. Urban legend says that Pennsylvania state archives are housed within the massive structures.
The bridge, which spans Paxton Creek and railroad lines, is 1,312 feet in length and 80 feet in width. The pylons at the western end are each 143 feet in height and 25 feet by 16 feet at their bases. The notable feature of each pylon is a 21-foot-high eagle weighing a staggering 300 tons. The eagles atop the pylons represent the army and the navy. Given the date of construction (1930) it should be noted that the U.S. Air Force was not a separate branch of the armed services, but rather a part of the Army.
Motivation for the construction of the bridge was the successful conclusion of World War I and the general feeling that there should be a fitting memorial to the armed forces of the United States and particularly to those from Pennsylvania that had fought in the conflict.
Further deliberations resulted in a decision to incise the dates of all major wars in which the United States had participated below the eagles, and the names of pivotal battles in U.S. history, up to 1930, are inscribed in the walls of the limestone terrace around the base of each pylon. Further homage to the entities of war is evident in the carvings in the seven-ton keystones in the arches of the bridge, that include warships, grenades, cannons, bombs, machine-gun bullets, steel helmets, bayonets, boat propellers, a periscope, and tanks. The carvings give the term “martial arts” an entirely new meaning when viewed.
Not unlike the work currently in progress on the Washington Monument – restoring that structure after damage from an earthquake – the construction of the Sailors and Soldiers Bridge pylons required a massive crane and scaffolding to construct the 143-foot-tall edifices. Although contractor Charles C. Strayer of Harrisburg constructed the initial phases of the bridge, the James McGraw Company of Philadelphia carried out the final stages of the construction, which included the main arches, the west approach and the erection of the pylons. The McGraw Company was busy constructing both the Market Street Bridge (1928) and the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad Bridge (1924) in Harrisburg during that time.
Notable to the design and construction of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Bridge were the efforts of American sculptor Lee Lawrie, one of the United States most influential architectural sculptors. He is probably best known for the freestanding bronze Atlas at New York’s Rockefeller Center. Lawrie sculpted not only the massive eagles atop the bridge pylons but is responsible for the look of the Education Building (Forum Building) nearby. He is particularly renowned for his many bronze doors adorning the Forum building, and, of course, those mysterious bronze doors at the bases of the eagle pylons.