John J. Fitzgerald remembers sitting at the dinner table and hearing his father say the Pennsylvania Turnpike was going to be extended “all the way to Clarks Summit.”
His dad, the late John E. Fitzgerald of Clarks Summit, was the civil engineer who helped design the bridge and then directed its construction.
Now 55 years old, the impressive viaduct over South Abington Township has been informally dubbed the “Freedom Bridge.” Before six-foot-tall barriers were installed in 2005, the bridge was a final destination for people intent on commiting suicide.
But the span never had an official name.
That will change this May.
The John E. Fitzgerald Memorial Bridge will be dedicated at 1 p.m. Sunday, May 30, near the turnpike toll booths in Clarks Summit.
John J. Fitzgerald said that when he was in the sixth grade, he’d go to the bridge construction site and “ride in the Euclid (truck) to the top of the hill” on the west side of the bridge. This was in the mid-1950s, in the days before safety and liability concerns would forbid such excursions.
His dad was in charge of cutting through the rock and making sure the bridge decking met the toll road precisely, he said.
The Phoenix Bridge Co. used 1.9 million pounds of reinforcing steel and 11,019 cubic yards of concrete to build the 1,627-foot-long span.
Its construction was critical to finishing the $200 million Northeast Extension, which opened to traffic on Nov. 7, 1957.
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John E. Fitzgerald grew up in Olyphant. He graduated from St. Thomas College (now The University of Scranton) and received his degree in civil engineering from Lehigh University.
Before he became involved in the turnpike bridge, he worked on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey, the Massachusetts Turnpike and other phases of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
He was also part of the engineering effort that created the routes 6 and 11 divided highway that extends north from Clarks Summit. That highway was a prototype for the federal Interstate Hhighway System and was also the first roadway to be banked, his son John J. said.
In 1936, John E. Fitzgerald married the former Marie Mulrooney of Clarks Summit. The couple lived on Powell Avenue and had eight children: the late Margaret Moylan; Jude Fitzgerald, Adell, Wisc.; Donna Torogossa, Mount Pocono; and Geraldine “Gerrie” Carey, John J. Fitzgerald, Rick Fitzgerald, Marie Lynch and Marion “Molly” Supanek, all of Clarks Summit.
Carey recalled the revisions her dad made to prevent plows from dumping snow from the bridge deck onto hapless vehicles traveling 163 feet below on routes 6 and 11. He had a medial strip installed as a safety measure.
After the bridge was completed, John E. Fitzgerald served 13 years as the first superintendent of the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s Northeast Extension. The 111-mile-long Northeast Extension links the main east-west Pennsylvania Turnpike with the Lehigh Valley and the Scranton-Wilkes Barre area.
Originally, the turnpike commission wanted its new superintendent to live near the middle of the Northeast Extension. But Carey said he had done such a good job that the commsssion made an exception. The Fitzgerald family remained in Clarks Summit.
John E. Fitzgerald was responsible for working with the state police to investigate fatalities on the Northeast Extension. John J. Fitzgerald and Carey recalled how upset their father was after going to the first fatality. They also remember his long hours on the road, especially in snowstorms. “He’d be gone for days,” she said. “We had nicknamed him ‘Car 54’,” she said, referring to the early 1960s TV comedy “Car 54, Where Are You?”
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John E. Fitzgerald died in 1987 — “six months after our mom,” Carey said.
Last year, the Fitzgerald siblings decided to ask the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to name the bridge after their father. John J. wrote the letter.
Carey, who is president of Clarks Summit Borough Council, spoke with state Rep. Jim Wansacz. “He got the ball rolling, along with Sen. Bob Mellow,” she said. State Rep. Frank Dermody of the Pittsburgh area, who had lived in Clarks Summit, also helped.
The name change passed the state legislature last summer.
But it was the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission that had the final say. The legislative action “was a gesture to the turnpike commission,” John J. said.
The commission will place two signs enscripted with “John E. Fitzgerald Memorial Bridge” at both ends of the bridge.