by Kevin Dicciani
The Wissahickon is home to so much beauty and history that sometimes a sight can remain a mystery even to those who have lived in Philadelphia their entire lives. One such place is the Fingerspan Bridge.
In 1987, the Fairmount Park Art Association’s “Form and Function” program had to devise a plan to replace a deteriorating stone staircase that ascended to a cliff just south of the Livezey Dam. Years before, the staircase, which originally came from an old ship, was retrofitted to replace a decaying span that once connected the cliff to another across the way.
Wanting to fill in the picturesque vista that ran along the edge of the water, the Fairmount Park Commission, supplemented with a grant from the Art in Public Places Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, commissioned artist Jody Pinto to build a bridge.
Pinto, an internationally renowned artist and graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, wanted to build something site-specific and unique. What Pinto came up with was a 59-foot enclosed self-weathering steel tunnel that was shaped like a finger, complete with knuckles and a fingernail. Its sides are perforated steel to allow for natural light and to enable the hiker to see outside, and the transparent grates on the floor reveal a 40-foot drop to the water and ravine below. Helicopters were used to install the bridge, which was then donated to the City of Philadelphia.
For Pinto, the bridge not only serves a practical purpose but also a symbolic one. The finger reaching across the gorge to the other side is a metaphor for the inextricable link that exists between man and nature. Because of its literal fingerprint on the landscape, the bridge also speaks to the ways that humans impact and mold the natural world, by hand and by machinery. Also, due to its self-weathering steel, the rusted exterior blends the bridge into the landscape, so much so that it looks to be an outgrowth of nature, furthering the idea that man and the natural world are forever inseparable.
The easiest way to get to the Fingerspan Bridge is by Livezey Lane in Roxborough. If you walk down Livezey you’ll eventually reach a point near the creek where the Valley Green Canoe Club in the Livezey House is visible. You can also reach the Canoe Club by taking the trail where Emlen Street meets Cresheim Valley Drive in Mt. Airy; just follow the trail downstream until you pass Devil’s Pool and you’ll arrive at the Canoe Club, where outside a sign for the Fingerspan points to where the trail continues.
All you need to do then is follow the trail for about 15 minutes until you see a small steel footbridge with a staircase beside it. Climb those stairs and you’ll find yourself at the entrance of one the most original and memorable structures in all the Wissahickon, one that is as peculiar as it is mesmerizing, and something that all Philadelphians should see in their lifetime.