Naming Bridges in the 1950s: Benjamin Franklin and Walt Whitman

The vision to span the Delaware River goes back as far as 1818, but the Delaware River Bridge wasn’t completed for another 108 years. This project coincided with the Sesquicentennial Exposition, Philadelphia’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Here we tell the story of the bridges renaming and the controversy about the name of a second span in the 1950s.

Walt Whitman Bridge Towers East – September 23, 1955 (PhillyHistory.org)

1951 – The Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) proposed a new bridge three miles downstream from the 25-year old span connecting Center City Philadelphia and Camden – the Delaware River Bridge.

1953 – Construction begins on the second suspension bridge to span the Delaware, this one connecting South Philadelphia and Gloucester City, New Jersey. DRPA dubs it “the new bridge” or “Bridge No.2.”

April 1954 – “The Bridge Without a Name,” a prominent story in the Inquirer, inspires a rash of proposed names for both the earlier Delaware River Bridge and the new one. (Ike and Mamie?) Other suggestions include Gloucester City Bridge, Packer Avenue Bridge, and Philester, a combination of the two. Some prefer the more regional Penjerdel. Familiar names tossed around include William Penn, Thomas Jefferson, John Barry, Thomas Paine, Betsy Ross, James Buchanan, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Wanamaker, Thomas Edison, among others. Someone suggested “Brotherhood Bridge.” The Pennsylvania chapter of American Gold Star Mothers wanted the bridge to be called “Penn-Jersey Memorial Bridge” in honor of the casualties of World War II and Korea.

May 1954 – Mindful of the upcoming 250th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s birth in 1956, an executive at the Franklin Institute urges that one bridge be named for Franklin. The idea gains traction.

1954 & 1955 – The DRPA appoints a Special Committee on Bridge Names which unanimously approves the renaming of the earlier bridge as the “Benjamin Franklin Bridge.” Bridge No.2 will become the “Walt Whitman Bridge.”

August & September 1955 – Gloucester City Council protests naming the new bridge for Whitman, pointing out that the DRPA didn’t consult them, observing that “Whitman had nothing to do with Gloucester.” They allocate funds for signs with their preferred name: the “Gloucester Bridge.”

November & December 1955The Catholic Star Herald, the newspaper of the Camden diocese, publishes three articles by Reverend James Ryan of St. Anne’s Church in Westville, New Jersey. “As a poet,” wrote Father Ryan, Whitman “is recognized even by his most favorable critics as definitely ‘second-rate.’ . . . As a thinker Walt Whitman possesses the depth of a saucer and enjoys a vision which extends about as far as his eyelids. A naturalist, a pantheist, a freethinker, a man whose ideas were destructive of usual ethical codes-is this a name we wish to preserve for posterity? . . . The philosophy of Walt Whitman crumbles under the destructive egotism that gave it life. . . . We don’t want our new span named after a man whose ideas fell far short of spanning the problems of human existence.”

In the last of his articles, Father Ryan reveals his main objection: “Whitman’s major works exhibit a revolting homosexual imagery that is not confined to a few isolated passages but permeates the fetid whole.”

What happened next? Click here to find out.

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