Preserving Our Heritage 101 (6/16)


The National Register of Historic Places was established in 1966 as a key provision of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), serving primarily as a tool for identifying, evaluating, and protecting historic properties and archaeological sites. While the National Register is defined as, “the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation,” it is important for everyone to understand just what it means, and doesn’t mean, to be listed in the National Register. The National Register is merely one way that communities and property owners can recognize the history that makes their places special and unique. Listing does not place obligations on private property owners, nor does it place restrictions on the use, treatment, or disposition of private property. National Register listing does not lead to public acquisition of property, nor does it require public access to a property. However, National Register designation does carry several impressive benefits; such as eligibility for state and federal tax incentives for income-producing properties, state and federal grants, when available, for properties owned by non-profits and local governments, and consideration in planning publicly funded or permitted projects.

At the time of the NHPA’s establishment, major initiatives such as urban renewal and the construction of the Interstate Highway network were bulldozing historic neighborhoods throughout the nation, and this new law was passed to give the federal and state government an opportunity to review the effects that these federally-funded projects might have on historic places. The federal review process that was established by the NHPA continues to be a major focus for the PA State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).

One notable example of this process in Cumberland Township is the upcoming replacement of Cunningham Bridge. This distinctive 1894 Baltimore truss bridge was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. When PennDOT decided to use Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) funds to replace this significant historic bridge, they were required by the NHPA to consult the PA SHPO. Under the law, federal agencies must consider alternatives to avoid, minimize, or mitigate the adverse effect the project will have on structures that are listed in, or eligible for listing in, the National Register. Bridges are a particular challenge to preserve because traffic crosses them every day, and they need to be safe. So in this case, our office reluctantly concluded that PennDOT and FHWA were right: there was no way to avoid or minimize the effect of this project, so the agencies worked together to come up with a plan to mitigate the loss of Cunningham Bridge.

The mitigation involved designing the new replacement bridge to fit into this traditional rural setting, trying to find a new home for the historic truss bridge, and setting aside funds to develop a video documentary about historic bridges in Pennsylvania. Together with money from several other historic bridge replacement projects, this 23-minute video was released in August 2014 and is available to the public on the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission’s YouTube channel;

Anytime there are publicly funded or permitted projects like a bridge replacement, the federal agency involved needs to solicit input from “consulting parties” on how the project may affect the community’s historic resources. So one thing that the Historical Society and other local organizations can do is to stay informed about what is going on in the community. For highway projects, local groups can sign up for automatic notices about projects in their area on the PA ProjectPATH website ( It also is important to know what properties in your community have been listed in, or evaluated for, the National Register. One way to do so is by visiting the PHMC’s Cultural Resource Geographic Information System (CRGIS) website (

In a later article, you’ll hear more about preservation efforts and initiatives that have taken place in the Gettysburg area, and beyond, as well as what communities can do now looking ahead to better recognize and preserve the historic places that matter to them.

Bryan Van Sweden and Dave Maher are with the Pennsylvania State Historical and Museum Commission, 400 North Street, 2nd floor, Harrisburg, PA. 17120