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Speech by D. B. Steinman about Suspension Bridge

Transportation in Wheeling Icon

▼ Speech Transcript

- Address by D. B. Steinman, Consulting Engineer, May 20, 1956


This an historic occasion. Today we are gathered here to dedicate a famous pioneer structure — the oldest cable suspension highway bridge in the world — as a national monument. Because this span has played a dramatic and significant role in the development of bridge engineering, and because its outstanding record of more than a century of distinguished service is interwoven with the unfolding panorama of American history, it is altogether fitting and proper that the shrine to thrill and inspire future generations.

When this great structure — the first bridge over the Ohio River — was completed in 1849, it was truly notable achievement. Its span of 1,010 feet was by far the longest in the world, the first time human courage and resourcefulness had achieved a span exceeding one-thousand feet.

The story of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge is linked with the names of the two pioneer bridgebuilders who made suspension bridge history — Charles Ellet, Jr., of Philadelphia and John A. Roebling of Pittsburgh. The two men, although both were characterized by native genius and creative courage, were of contrasting types and temperaments.

Charles Ellet, Jr., born in 1810 at Penn's Manor, a village near Philadelphia, was of the salesman type — a promoter rather than an engineer. With little more than a grammar-school education and with no formal engineering education, Ellet was brilliant, unhesitating, and a master of salesmanship. Through his initiative and personality, any by the boldness and originality of his proposals he posed as an experienced bridgebuilder and achieved a newspaper reputation as a famous bridge engineer — before he had built a single span.

John August Roebling, born in 1806 in Muhlhausen in Thuringia, revealed unusual endowments and qualities from boyhood — quick intelligence, nervous energy, and an active brain. Through the sacrifices and vision of his mother, he received the finest engineering and architectural education at the Royal Polytechnic Institute. During his student years, he visited a small chain bridge then under construction in Bavaria — the first suspension bridge in his part of the world. That experience fired his imagination and crystallized his ambition. He was going to be a builder of suspension bridges, and he was going to build them better and larger and stronger than any previously conceived. Finding his ambition stifled under an autocratic regime, Roebling left his homeland and came to America in 1831, seeking freedom to work, to build, to achieve.

During the ensuing years, the paths of the two young men, Ellet and Roebling, crossed and re-crossed. In 1841 the Pennsylvania newspapers heralded Ellet's proposal to build a suspension span across the Schuylkill River at Fairmount in Philadelphia. Roebling, then engaged in engineering work at the opposite end of the state, near Pittsburgh, was excited by the announcement that the proposed Fairmount span was to be a wire suspension. Although Ellet was actually the younger of the two by four years, Roebling naturally assumed that the proposed builder of the Fairmount Bridge was the older and more experienced engineer. He anxiously wrote to Ellet, soliciting an opportunity to serve as an assistant; but he was rebuffed. Ellet built the Fairmount bridge in 1841, and Roebling was broken-hearted.

Ellet — audacious, brilliant, cocksure — was to have the earlier start; but his success, like his work, lacked the sound foundation needed to make it stable and enduring.

In 1841 Roebling made his historic invention of wire rope, and proceeded to develop his method of building suspension bridge cables — the air-stringing method still in use in the largest modern suspension bridges. By 1850, John Roebling had realized his ambition — he had become a builder of suspension bridges. Six of them he had built in six years. Six suspension structures successfully completed! No other bridge builder of the time could point to such a record. The erstwhile immigrant and farmer had become the world's foremost exponent of a new art of bridge construction.

In the meantime, in 1847, a company had been formed to build a toll span over the Ohio River at Wheeling. Ellet and Roebling, both described in the local press as "young engineers of ability", submitted proposals for the construction of the bridge. Ellet advocated a single, long span of the record-breaking length of 1,010 feet from bank to bank; and Roebling, in view of the narrow width of the structure, urged a central span not to exceed 600 feet, flanked by side spans and stiffened by inclined stays. The decision was left to the local board of directors, a group of businessmen who knew little or nothing about bridge design. A vote was taken, with the result the Ellet's plan was approved and he was given the job. The span was light and narrow for its length, carrying only a seventeen-foot wagon way and a 3 1/2 foot sidewalk. Most important of all, the span had no stiffening truss.

Again Ellet had his hour of glory. Completed in 1849, the Wheeling Bridge was his crowning work. He had built just two bridges, one in 1841, the other in 1849; the one was the beginning and the other was the end of his career.

On May 17, 1854, a news-flash by telegraph announced a great suspension bridge catastrophe. Ellet's bridge over the Ohio at Wheeling had collapsed!

The news reached Roebling when he was busily engaged in the construction of his epoch-making Railway Suspension Bridge over Niagara. In a letter to his Trenton office, Roebling recorded his first reaction upon receipt of the news:

"A telegraphic dispatch from Wheeling states that the Wheeling Suspension Bridge broke down on the 17th; the particulars I have not heard. The bridge was not safe against storms."

Yes, five years after completion, the proud, record-breaking structure at Wheeling was destroyed by the wind. Technical publications recorded the disaster merely as another bridge wrecked by a storm, and the lesson was lost to the profession. We find the complete story of the disaster, however, in an eyewitness account by a reporter, printed the following day in the Wheeling Intelligencer and reprinted four days later in the New York Time — it took four days then for a news story to reach New York. A remarkable anticipatory parallel to the 1940 Tacoma Narrows bridge catastrophe is revealed by the following excerpts from the original newspaper account:

With feeling of unutterable sorrow, we announce that the noble and world-renowned structure, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, has been swept from its strongholds by a terrific storm, and now lies a mass of ruins. Yesterday morning thousands beheld this stupendous structure, a mighty pathway spanning the beautiful waters of the Ohio, 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 beneath them.

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 had been off the flooring only two minutes and were 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.

For a mechanical solution of the unexpected fall of this stupendous structure, we must await future developments. We witnessed the terrific scene. 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. 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....

We believe the enterprise and public spirit of our citizens will repair the loss as speedily as any community could possibly do. It is a source of gratulation that no lives were lost by the disaster.

The newspaper man who wrote the foregoing dramatic account unknowingly summarized the crux of the aerodynamic phenomenon he had observed when he used the significant phrase: "Each vibration giving it increased momentum." And when he stated that the mechanical solution of the failure "must await further developments," he wrote better than he know. In those days bridge builders were not thinking in terms of aerodynamics, and the profession had to wait nearly a hundred years for the further developments that finally gave them an understanding and mastery of the problem.

The only engineer of the time who grasped the full significance of the Wheeling Bridge disaster was John Roebling. With intuitive genius, a century ahead of his time, he realized the need of bracing and stiffening suspension bridges against cumulative undulations that may be started by the action of the wind. From his very first bridge, the Monongahela in Pittsburgh in 1844, he provided spans with ample stiffening and with inclined stays. These were incorporated from the start, in 1850, in his design for the Niagara Bridge — the first suspension bridge in the world successfully completed to carry railroad trains and the first suspension bridge in the world built with a stiffening truss, in addition to inclined stays in under-floor stays to resist wind uplift.

The Wheeling catastrophe ended Ellet's spectacular but brief bridgebuilding career, but it gave added strength and confidence to Roebling's work. It confirmed the practical soundness of his original and prophetic thinking on the subject of the security and stability of suspension bridges. Roebling's bridges stood up, while those built by his contemporaries were blown down by the wind. With his inventions and his great bridges, John Roebling, the immigrant, was richly repaying America for its gifts of citizenship and opportunity.

During the disastrous gale in 1854, the Wheeling span had overturned, the south group of cables was wrenched and broken, and the whole structure, except the north cables, was blown into the Ohio — a wrecked and twisted mass of wire and timber. The bridge had to be rebuilt, and the one logical man to do it was John A. Roebling. He was called to Wheeling, in 1856 the bridge was rebuilt by Roebling, staunch and safe and enduring, at a cost of $42,000.

Since 1856 the Wheeling Bridge, in its stronger reincarnation, has been performing valiant service, carrying the National Highway. During the Civil War, the newly rebuilt span was indispensable and was used for truck transport trains during World War I, and then again three decades later, in World War II. Until now, 100 years after reconstruction of the horse-and-buggy bridge by Roebling, it has been a heavily traversed bridge, often loaded with automobiles and trucks from end to end.

The useful life of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, from its original completion in 1849, has spanned 107 eventful years of American history — a century of industrial, technological, and cultural progress. Today we celebrate the dedication and preservation of this great structure as a symbol and a shrine, to honor the courage and vision of the generations that preceded us and to inspire future generations. The Wheeling Bridge is a monument to the spirit of America.

Transcribed from a typescript (carbon copy) in the Ohio Public Library vertical files.

David Barnard Steinman (1886-1960) was educated at City College of New York and Columbia University. His design and construction work included the Mackinac Bridge (1953-57), reconstruction of the Brooklyn Bridge (1948-1954), the Kingston Bridge (1952-1956) and also the Sky-Ride and Observation Towers at the Century of Progress Exposition of 1933. He was the author of numerous popular and technical books about bridges, including a biography of Roebling. (Who Was Who in America, v. 4, 1968)

N.B.: Most sources indicate that Ellet, not Roebling rebuilt the bridge after it fell. Roebling's principles were implemented in the 1860 reconstruction and especially in 1886 when Washington Roebling was somewhat involved. L.H.

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