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Suspension Bridge Collapse: May 17, 1854

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▼ Suspension Bridge Newspaper Article

      ▶ Articles covering the collapse of the Suspension Bridge on May 17, 1854

- from the The Wheeling Intelligencer, vol. 2, no. 225, Thursday, May 18, 1854, p. 3


Destruction of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge!!

With feelings of unutterable sorrow, we announce that the noble and world renowned structure, the WHEELING SUSPENSION BRIDGE, has been swept from its strong holds by a terrific storm, and now lies a mass of ruins! Yesterday morning thousands beheld this stupendous structure in undisturbed repose and in undiminished strength, a mighty pathway spanning the beautiful waters of the Ohio, a link in the unbroken chain of trade and travel between the East and the West, and looked upon it as one of the proudest monuments of the enterprise of our citizens. Now, nothing remains of it but the dismantled towers looming above the sorrowful wreck that lies buried beneath them! A giant lies prostrate in the Ohio, and against his huge and broken ribs, and iron sinews snapped asunder, the waves are dashing scornfully, ending up a sound the most doleful that ever fell upon the ears of our citizens!

During the forenoon of yesterday, a high storm of wind prevailed, which towards noon increased to almost a hurricane along the valley of the river, breaking vessels at their moorings and causing great devastation. About 3 o'clock we walked up towards the Suspension Bridge, and went upon it, intending to take a walk across it for pleasure, as we have frequently done, enjoying the cool breeze and the undulating motion of the bridge. We discovered that one of the guys, or small iron cables extending from the flooring to the wall near the base of the east abutment, was broken from its fastenings, and several of the stones wrenched apart. About a hundred years [corrected to yards in the Monday reprint - LH] further on, we saw that one, and only one of the suspenders to which the floor is swung, was broken. -- These were but slight damages, but as we had never before seen the bridge effected by even to this extent by gales, and as it began to sway violently we thought it prudent to retrace our steps. We had been off the flooring only two minutes and was on Main street when we saw persons running towards the river bank; we followed just in time to see the whole structure of cables and flooring heaving and dashing with tremendous force.

For a few moments we watched it with breathless anxiety, lunging like a ship in the storm; at one time it rose to nearly the heighth of the towers then fell, and twisted and writhed, and was dashed almost bottom upward. At last there seemed to be a determined twist along the entire span, about one half of the flooring being nearly reversed, and down went the immense structure from its dizzy heighth to the stream below, with an appalling crash and roar. Nearly the entire structure struck the water at the same instant dashing up an unbroken column of foam across the river, to the heighth of at least forty feet!

Amid the confusion of the wreck, we cannot accurately estimate the extent of the damage. All the cables, except two on the North side, are torn from the towers. On the South side, all the cables except one small one, are torn from their anchorage in the heavy masonry on Main street, and with such violence were they jerked from this piece of masonry, that one stone weighing about 1,500 pounds, was thrown a distance of some feet. The large iron gate, at this end of the bridge was shivered to atoms, and the toll house completely demolished, Mr. James Bell, the toll keeper, making a narrow escape with his life. One the Island, at the west end of the bridge, we learn that but one cable broke from the anchorage. The entire wood work lies in the river and on the shores. The cables also stretch across the river, sunk to the bottom. So far as we can discover, only two of the cables snapped assunder, and that on the outside of the towers, the rest of the breakage being at their connections with the anchors.

For a mechanical solution of the unexpected fall of this stupendous structure, we must await future developments. We witnessed the terrific scene and saw that it was brought about by the tremendous violence of the gale. The great body of the flooring and the suspenders, forming something like a basket swung between the towers, was swayed to and fro, like the motion of a pendulum. The cables on the south side were finally thrown off the apex of the eastern tower, retaining their position on the tower on the opposite side of the river. This destroyed the equilibrium of the swinging body; and each vibration giving it increased momentum, the cables, which sustained the whole structure, were unable to resist a force operating on them in so many difference directions, and were literally twisted and wrenched from their fastenings.

The summits of the towers on each side are several feet above the arch which united the. Upon the summits the cables rested on iron rollers, and it is supposed by some that the jar produced by the sudden falling of the cables on one side from the roller to the connecting arch below, was the cause of the disaster. Whether this is a philosophical conclusion, or whether the result would have been different if the towers had not been separated, is a question which we leave to future investigations.The flooring as it struck the water was broken into three sections, and extended across the river, entirely blockading the channel for a while. Last evening that portion across the channel was cut away and removed by the steamer Thos. Swann, so that the channel is now free for the passage of boats.

We cannot estimate the inconvenience which will be caused to trade and travel, and the mail transit by the loss of this bridge. It is one of the heaviest calamities which has ever fallen on our city, but we believe the enterprise and public spirit of our citizens will repair the loss as speedily as any community could possibly do. Temporary ferry boats have been provided and their places will soon be supplied by the best boats which can be procured. For further arrangements, we look hopefully to the future.

It is a source of gratulation that no lives were lost by this disaster. We were among the last persons who left the bridge from this side, and although many on both sides were just waiting to go upon it, they were fortunately deterred. We saw no one upon it when it fell, and so far was we have learned, one little girl, daughter of Mr. Lukens, on the Island, is the only one who was injured, and she not dangerously. She was standing on this side, waiting for the wind to subside, and was struck by something which bruised her arm. We trust that further examination will disclose no more bodily injury.

 - from the The Wheeling Intelligencer, May 20, 1854

The Demand for our paper containing an account of the falling of the Suspension Bridge exhausted the daily edition early in the morning; and when our weekly appeared the rush was so great that the edition was totally inadequate to supply the demand, and despite the remonstrances of clerks and carriers, many of our subscribers were deprived of their papers, while hundreds who called at our offices could not be supplied. There seems to be a deep and universal feeling awakened by the destruction of this noble edifice and many of the papers containing an account of the disaster are now on their way to Europe. Had we known a few hours before we wrote the article that the Bridge was going to fall, we might have ordered a much larger edition; but in order to remove all dissatisfaction, and in compliance with numerous requests, we shall on Monday republish the account of the destruction of this great structure  the largest and most beautiful structure of the kind in the world  and shall add thereto a description of its dimensions and plan and a history of many interesting circumstances connected with its erection.

- from The Intelligencer, v. 2, no. 228, Monday, May 22, 1854, p. 3.

The Intelligencer reprinted the original story of the fall of the bridge from the May 18 paper on May 22, along with the following:


The Ruins

We yesterday visited the ruins of the magnificent Bridge which recently spanned our river and found that the account we gave yesterday morning of the disaster was full and correct in ever[y] material particular. Much of the remains can be used again.

The towers are uninjured, with the exception of a few fractures at the top. They constitute, we suppose, an item of one-third the cost of the bridge.

All the flooring, cross timbers, railing, and iron suspenders were precipitated into the river, where they are now lying.

Only two cables remain stretched on the towers. The others are either broken from the anchorage, or dragging the bottom of the river.

Only two cables, the small one on the South side, and large one on the north side, were broken between the towers.

On the Island, all the cables remain firmly anchored, and only one is broken between the anchors and the tower.

An idea of the tremendous force which dashed the structure in pieces, may be obtained from looking at the position of the one cable on the Island which is snapped asunder. It is composed of 550 strands of No. 10 wire. When it broke it gyrated around in almost every imaginable direction, and the huge thing is now coiled and twisted, and looks much like a serpent grown stiff in the act of striking a mortal blow.

We stated yesterday, that as near as we could perceive at any one time the position of the flooring when the whole body of the wood work and suspenders was leaping and lunging in the air, there was once or twice a twist along the whole span, and that a part of the flooring was turned bottom upward. We discover that such was really the case. The whole body of the flooring and railing was broken into three sections before it fell. The section at the west end is about 250 feet long, and fell with the bottom down. The section at the east end was about 560 feet long, and also fell with the bottom down; but the middle section, where the twist occurred, fell with the bottom up.

This bridge was commenced by authority of the act of 1847, incorporating the WHEELING AND BELMONT BRIDGE COMPANY, was erected under the management of that distinguished civil engineer, CHARLES ELLET, Jr., and completed in November 1849. The length of the span was greater than that of any other suspension bridge in the world.

The span was 1010 feet between the summits of the towers, leaving the entire width of the river unobstructed for the passage of vessels beneath. The towers on the Wheeling side were 153 1/2 feet above low water level of the river. The Western towers, on Zane's Island, were 132 1/4 feet high.

The flooring and side railings were suspended on iron cables extending from the towers on each side of the river. There were ten cables, each composed of 550 strands of No. 10 wire, and two smaller cables composed of 140 strands of wire.

The cables were anchored in strong walls of stone cemented around them on each side of the river. They were 1380 feet long from anchor to anchor. The flooring was attached to the cables by wire suspenders three-fourth of an inch in diameter. The highest elevation of the flooring was immediately over the channel of the river, 212 feet from the Wheeling shore, where the top of the flooring was 93 feet above low water.

The strength of the bridge as completed by Mr. Ellet, was sufficient to sustain 297 tons, or 32 laden road wagons, 172 horses and 500 people, a which equal to 4000 men.

The result of the proceedings against this bridge on account of its alleged obstruction to the free navigation of the Ohio river, is well known to the public. It never materially obstructed the navigation, and the slight obstruction which it did cause to the largest vessels was during unusually high waters, which lasted but for a few hours, or a day. While the suit against it, instituted and maintained by the citizens of Pittsburgh alone, was pending in the United States Supreme Court, the Legislature of Virginia legalized the structure, and Congress declared it a portion of a post route, and the suit was withdrawn by the plaintiffs. The effort to destroy a work contributing so largely to the necessities of the public, and so eminently national in the purpose which is subserved, was an utter failure. A lamentable accident has accomplished that which the enemies of this great work could not accomplish, but the same imperative wants which demanded this structure, and the same public spirit and enterprise which erected it, will, we are assured, replace it in the shortest possible space of time.

The whole cost of the bridge was about $170,000. It is estimated that the damage cannot exceed $100,000.

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