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Early History of the Suspension Bridge

Transportation in Wheeling Icon

▼ Bridge History

- from History of Greater Wheeling and Vicinity, Charles A. Wingerter, 1912, p. 169-174.

The Early History of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge

The necessity of a bridge at this point had been repeatedly urged upon the attention of Congress as a national work. In 1838 government engineers reported a plan for a bridge to be suspended between two piers six hundred feet apart, but no actual aid was ever obtained from Congress in promoting this enterprise. In March, 1847, Virginia amended the charter so as to permit of the construction of a suspension instead of a pier bridge. The suspending project, and the company that built the old suspension bridge at Wheeling deserve credit not only for constructing the first bridge over the Ohio river below the forks at Pittsburg but also for building what was at the time the longest single span in America (4). From tower to tower this bridge span was 1,010 feet, the only other span at the time approaching this being shorter by ten feet.

In 1847 a committee of the bridge company solicited subscriptions to the capital stock, and began the same year actual construction. Two of the leading engineers in the country competed in submitting plans for the structure, Charles Ellet and John A. Roebling. The latter proposed two piers in stream with the span between them not exceeding six hundred feet. His plan provided for a stronger construction, and from the modern viewpoint the simpler method. The fear that any piers in stream would interfere with navigation and hence invalidate the whole enterprise was no doubt one of the chief reasons that caused the company to choose Mr. Ellet's bold plan of spanning the entire channel.

It required two years to complete the bridge. In October, 1849, the first vehicle was driven across from shore to shore, and a great crowd gathered from the city and surrounding towns to behold the ceremony of joining Virginia and Ohio.(5) Flags were planted on the towers, and after the workmen had laid the floor up to the center Mr. Ellet drove in a carriage the entire length, his arrival on the other side being announced by the roar of a cannon. On November 15th the formal opening occurred, at which time a thousand oil lamps hung from the cables furnished a display such as had never been witnessed over the Ohio river. The first rates of toll established by the company were, in some of the items, as follows: Foot passengers, 5c for round trip; man and horse, 10c; six-horse wagon, 75c; monthly ticket for foot passenger, 50c. The novelty of the bridge at first attracted a large traffic, but the company soon found it necessary to reduce the toll rates.

With the opening of the bridge, the Zane ferry, which had been operated since the memory of the oldest inhabitants, was discontinued, though two other ferries at different points continued to ply over the river. The market wagons which supplied most of the provisions for Wheeling people now began using the bridge.

A very important result of the building of the bridge was the impetus it gave to the development of the island as an integral part of the city. The day after the bridge was opened a sale of fifty lots was advertised, and though most of the upbuilding of the island as a residence section occurred since the war, its beginning may be dated from the consolidation of this portion with the mainland through the construction of the bridge.

The bridge company had used much foresight in planning their enterprise not only to serve the needs which had existed for years but also in providing for the future. At that time it was reckoned as a certainty that Wheeling would be the junction point of at least the Baltimore & Ohio and the Central Ohio, both of which were under construction, and in addition were the Hempfield and other lines that were designed to connect here. With these facts in mind the bridge was planned as a link between the railroads on opposite sides of the river. After the work was finished it was seen that the structure would not bear the weight of locomotives and cars. But at the time this was not a serious objection, since the now universal system of transferring cars from one railroad to another did not prevail. It was proposed that a railroad track should be laid across the bridge so that cars might be drawn by horses from one side to the other, thus effecting an interchange of traffic much better than ferriage. This plan would have satisfied all the then existing standards of railway co-operation, and would have furnished a better connection than the system of ferries in use across the river until about 1870. The events which deprived both the bridge company and the city of these great advantages as a railway junction will be described later in this chapter.

The suspension bridge, though the original cost of its building was close to a quarter of million dollars and the building itself was one of the remarkable engineering accomplishments of the time, had a significance in the history of Wheeling quite apart from its importance as an achievement of local enterprise. Wheeling was then at the critical period of its commercial history. It was an active and no mean rival of Pittsburgh, and had promise of growth into one of the greatest cities of the Ohio valley. When one considers the splendid spirit of cooperation and liberality which actuated the citizens of that time, in the building of this bridge and promotion of other local enterprises and in their generous donations for the construction of railroads, nothing but praise can be granted to their efforts. And while it is a matter for regret that the best fruits of this enterprise were never secured to the city, this regret is really an expression of admiration for the vigorous struggle made against adverse circumstances. One of these circumstances was the subsequent choice by the railroads of Benwood and Bellaire as their termini, which has always been considered to have been an unfair discrimination and an act of ingratitude to Wheeling. Another factor was the constant and vigorous hostility of Pittsburgh, to which attention is now called.

Throughout the years in which the subject of a bridge at Wheeling was agitated, the opposition of Pittsburgh to any such enterprise was a natural outcome of the rivalry between the two cities, and it was charged that the citizens of that city had been able to resist every application for a bridge up to the year 1847.(6) When construction actually began in 1847, no open hostility was manifested by Pittsburgh, and it was claimed that there was no intimation of a purpose to object until two years later, when the bridge company had expended the whole its capital. Then, basing the attack on the grounds that the bridge "obstructed navigation," the rival city began an active campaign, holding meetings and raising money to prosecute the suit by the state of Pennsylvania against the bridge company. This suit was decided by the Supreme Court of the United States.

At low water the highest point of the flooring of the old bridge was ninety-two feet above the water, and at the lowest point of the flooring the distance was sixty-two feet. At a thirty-foot stage, which it was claimed occurred only about once in two years and was of brief duration, there still remained a space of sixty feet between the water and the highest part of the bridge. Before the bridge was completed the height of smoke-stacks on the river boats never exceeded sixty feet above the water line, so that any of these boats could pass under the bridge except at times of extraordinary flood. So to prove their contention that the bridge obstructed navigation, it was charged, the steamboat interests at Pittsburgh constructed some six or seven boats with stacks about eighty feet high, and sent them down the river during high-water period. Through design or negligence on the part of the captains, one or two of these boats suffered injury to the stacks. On one occasion the bridge employes chopped off the top of one of the stacks. It is evident that the entire proceedings were part of a plan adopted by the upper city to destroy the bridge, and the attorney for the company was justified in describing the suit, in its origin and real purpose, as "purely vexatious."

The whole case had a broader significance than its results to the bridge company. It illustrates perhaps better than anything else would the dominant importance of water transportation at that time. To maintain the river highways free from any impediment was an object transcending the rights and benefits of any other form of transportation. Since then the federal government, though upholding its authority over navigable streams and forbidding their obstruction for the passage of boats, has greatly qualified the exercise of its power, so that in practice the right of a railroad or other highway to bridge a stream is held to be as essential to the public welfare as the privilege of navigation. Judged according to the prevalent opinions of that time, the majority of our modern bridges would be considered obstructive to navigation. The use of rivers by boats has since been so modified that, when the interests of a community or of business justify it, navigation may even be entirely interrupted at certain hours. To such an extent have usage and law been developed since this famous suit over the suspension bridge.

An act of the Virginia legislature, January 11, 1850, declared that the bridge as it stood was of lawful height and in conformity with the true intent and meaning of the act of March, 1847. Notwithstanding this act, and the argument of the defendants' attorney, which to the modern view seems to have lacked nothing in cogency or in breadth of reasoning, the Supreme Court in December, 1851, brought in a decision adverse to the company. The following spring the general assembly of Virginia instructed the state's representatives in Congress to urge such legislation as would protect the bridge as built and would also define exact regulations for the navigation of the Ohio and the extent to which piers might be erected in the river and other rules determine the height of bridges. An act of Congress in August, 1852, declared that the Wheeling bridges, on both sides of the island, were "lawful structures in their present position and elevation," thus ending the war against the bridge company.

The suspension bridge as long as it stands deserves the regard which is paid to monumental enterprises. When first built the structure excited the admiration of all who beheld its remarkable length of span and beauty of proportions, and even now those acquainted with its history regard it with an interest and affection quite apart from its utility as compared with the many modern bridges that cross the Ohio.

The subsequent history of the bridge many be briefly told. May 17, 1854, a violent gale overturned the bridge and left it a tangled ruin in the river. The towers and part of the cables were intact, and the bridge was reconstructed largely from the old material, being once more opened for travel in January, 1856. The original width of the floor had been twenty-eight feet, but now the width between the cables was decreased to fourteen feet. In 1860 the cables were reinforced, and the foot passages were placed outside the suspenders. This was considered an unsatisfactory construction and also destroyed the proportions of the bridge. In 1872 the bridge was reconstructed in such a way as to restore the original symmetry and width and at the same time to strengthen the whole structure. In this form practically it has hung suspended over the river for the past forty years.

NOTES: (4) The board of directors of the bridge company in 1847, when work of construction began, were: Thomas Sweeney, president, James Baker, Henry Moore, E. W. Stevens, W. T. Selby, John W. Gill, William Paxton, Thomas Hughes and Daniel C. List. (5) Daily Gazette, October 22, 1849. (6) Much of the information concerning the suit against the bridge company is obtained from a little book published in 1851, entitled "Arguments for the defendants in the Case of the State of Pennsylvania vs. the Wheeling & Belmont Bridge Company and Others, in the Supreme Court of the United States, by Charles W. Russell." The files of the Daily Gazette for 1850 contain many items pertaining to this interesting case.

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