Celebrating the nation's oldest road bridge - in NE Philly

Jason Sherman in front of the King's Highway Bridge, the oldest surviving road span in the country, built in 1697 to cross the Pennypack Creek.

Jason Sherman felt he had to speak up - for a road.

An old road, one that served as an Indian trail in the age before settlers arrived, was later traveled by the likes of William Penn and George Washington, and today endures as the busy asphalt thoroughfare of Frankford Avenue.

It was christened 300 years ago under a grander name: the King's Highway.

It's the oldest road in Pennsylvania, marked by the oldest surviving road bridge in the country. Now it's the focus of a forthcoming film that claims for Northeast Philadelphia some of the early American glow that shines so brightly in Center City.

"People know about Independence Hall, the signing of the Declaration, and the Liberty Bell," Sherman said. "When I tell them that the 'oldest this' or 'first that' is here in Northeast Philly, they don't know about that."

His movie, The King's Highway, aims to change that - to engage the Northeast in the larger conversation and spur interest in preserving remaining structures along the highway, where demolition has been extensive.

Sherman, 39, isn't a full-time filmmaker. He describes himself as an entrepreneur, writer, photographer, Web designer, videographer, and creative human.

But he has experience in film. His previous movie, The Bucks County Massacre, was a modern Blair Witch-style horror film (tagline: The birthday party that became a funeral). It was produced for $50,000 in 2010 and won an audience-choice award at the New Hope Film Festival.

Sherman grew interested in the King's Highway after happening across a newspaper story earlier this year. He did some basic research. And the more he learned, the more fascinated he became.

In summer, he began filming interviews with local historians, preservationists, and descendants of the Lenape, augmenting that with archival footage, photographs, and maps.

Shooting is nearing its end, and editing has begun. Sherman hopes to have a rough draft of a 90-minute movie completed by year's end, with a formal release in spring. A Kickstarter campaign that ended Thursday topped its $10,000 goal; the money will to go to publicize the movie and enter it in film festivals.

"The history of Philadelphia in America is not just in Center City," Sherman said. "Somebody has to tell this story."

The King's Highway, covering about 1,300 miles, was laid out between roughly 1650 and 1735 and built on the order of Charles II of England. The king wanted to speed travel and trade by linking Charleston, S.C., and Boston with a kind of colonial I-95.

In Philadelphia, the King's Highway spans about 12 miles - a short distance where a lot happened.

The route begins where Frankford Avenue meets Delaware Avenue, near SugarHouse Casino, then heads north until it reaches Poquessing Creek, which forms part of the boundary with Bucks County.

A major landmark is the Frankford Avenue Bridge, also known as Pennypack Creek Bridge, Holmesburg Bridge, and King's Highway Bridge. The stone structure carries Frankford Avenue over Pennypack Creek in the Holmesburg section.

It was built in 1697 at the request of William Penn, who wanted to better connect his mansion in what is now Falls Township with the emerging city of Philadelphia.

In 1774, as John Adams and other delegates from Massachusetts neared the city for the First Continental Congress, they were met - in Frankford - by a group that included physician Benjamin Rush and merchant Thomas Mifflin. They talked strategy, a conversation that Adams later said gave "color, complexion, and character to the whole policy of the United States."

Soldiers of the Continental Army marched across the bridge toward what would be a decisive victory at Yorktown. In 1789, Washington crossed on the way to his first presidential inauguration.

Now, 17,000 cars a day traverse the bridge, along with the heavily used Route 66 trackless trolley, according to Fred Moore, a leader in the Northeast Philadelphia History Network.

"It's something that was built, and is still used, for what it was intended," he said.

Moore agrees that Northeast Philadelphia deserves more attention for its rich and intriguing history. The problem with luring tourists is "there just isn't much up here to look at," he said.

Visitors aren't going to travel from Center City to see a bridge.

Many of the oldest existing structures on or near the King's Highway are religious institutions, like Pennepack Baptist Church in Bustleton, founded in 1688 and the oldest surviving Baptist church in Pennsylvania; and the Byberry Friends Meeting House, which dates from 1683.

"To bring it alive, the only way is to dig into historically what did happen on that road," said Debbie Klak of the Frankford Historical Society. "It's almost like a battlefield - plain ground, but a big story behind it."

Telling that story, she and others said, can do more than entertain.

Center City has turned history into an economic engine. Phoenixville, an old steel town, has sought to capitalize on its historic charm. In New Jersey, Millville has restored older buildings as part of becoming an artists' haven.

Telling the tale of the King's Highway, Sherman said, is different from producing a film biography of a person. But the road "is kind of a living thing," he said. And people in Northeast communities have responded to its role in American history by sharing time, money, and interest.

"Without them," Sherman said, "the buildings are going to disappear. And the history will disappear."

jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906

@JeffGammage