Historic Structures

Wheeling Suspension Bridge, Wheeling West Virginia

Date added: September 15, 2017 Categories: West Virginia Bridges

Connecting West Virginia with Ohio, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge stands as a symbol of technological progress in the midst of the industrial revolution. It is the crowning achievement of a brilliant man whose reputation was late in emerging from the shadows of obscurity - Charles Ellet, Jr. The decision to build the bridge occurred in the context of a rivalry between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Wheeling, West Virginia, in the days when Wheeling was still making a bid to become one of the transportation and industrial centers of the West. The ensuing arguement over its construction at Wheeling concluded with a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

On June 21, 1969, the American Society of Civil Engineers designated the bridge a National Engineering Landmark, and on July 4, 1976 the National Park Service designated it a National Historic Landmark. It has been described as the oldest vehicular suspension bridge still in operation. With a span in excess of 1,000, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time of its erection, surpassing the Fribourg, Switzerland, Gran Pont Bridge (completed in 1834) by 114 feet. The Wheeling Suspension Bridge was the first bridge to effect a crossing of the Ohio River, one of the world's Busiest rivers. Its dramatic destruction by wind in 1854 provided engineers with the best object lesson in the aerodynamics of bridges until the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940.

The history of the Wheeling Bridge, is the folk tale of a great local enterprise, when people in a small city of 13,000 resolutely mustered the capital to attract the pioneering B & 0 Railroad to Wheeling and dared to risk their own money in backing a venture so great and innovative as a suspension bridge more than a thousand feet long. Charles Ellet, as distinguished a designer of railroads as of bridges, was identified with every aspect of this local effort. He influenced the routing of the B & 0 along Grave Creek to the Ohio River and designing the bridge itself in almost every detail.

The possibility of a bridge spanning the Ohio River had been the preoccupation of the people of Wheeling for decades. It was in the mind of Ebenezer Zane, founder of Wheeling, when he laid out Zane's Trace from Wheeling to Limestone, Kentucky, in 1797. Ellet was only a six-year-old farm boy in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, when in 1816, a charter was granted to the Wheeling & Belmont Bridge Company for the erection of the National Road from Cumberland to Wheeling. Virginia planters were loath to spend tax money on schemes as far distant as Wheeling, and although a start had been made on the western channel portion as late as 1836, no bridge had been completed over either channel between Wheeling (Zane's) Island and the eastern and western shores. But this was the year Charles Ellet turned his thoughts to the Ohio River. In communication with Henry Moore of Wheeling, he submitted a sketch of a suspension bridge across the east channel to the Ohio River at this city.

Charles Ellet had no formal early education and, in his youth, learned what he knew from his mother and other members of the family. At the age of 17, he had a desire to become a civil engineer. He became a "rod man" on the Susquehanna branch canal and later, for two years, was assistant engineer on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, during which time he also studied foreign languages. Encouraged by his mother, who recognized his facility in mathematics, he took passage for Europe in 1830. With the help of Marquis de Lafayette (no stranger to Wheeling) and American Ambassador Rives, he enrolled in the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussees, which served as a graduate school for engineers who had passed through the polytechnic school. During his year and a half in Europe, Ellet toured several countries, learning a great deal from observation, publications, and conversations about railroads, waterways and bridges. Ironically, it was in Europe that he fell in love with a type of bridge which had been developed in its modern form in Wheeling's backyard by a country justice-of-the-peace, James Finley. Finley had built his first of some forty small chain suspension bridges in 1796, near Uniontown, Pennsylvania. As Ellet explained the principle, "The suspension bridge enables a light and weak structure to yield repeatedly to a heavy body passing over it, to acquire a new state of equilibrium and return to its former situation as soon as the disturbing force is withdrawn."

Obviously, the inexpensive but durable characteristics of the suspension bridge, along with its freedom from pillars, would attract the attention of Wheeling capitalists working within the limitations of local funding. There were in America at that time only two engineers with enough experience in suspension bridge building, Charles Ellet and John Roebling. in 1841, Ellet took time off from his supervision of work on a 357-foot suspension bridge over the Schuylkill River at Fairmount, Philadelphia, and visited Wheeling. He proposed to build a suspension span for $130,000. Roebling, a native of Germany but later of Saxonburg, north of Pittsburgh, came to Wheeling in 1845 and made a proposal of $150,000, which he was able to reduce the following year to $130,000 by leaving out certain ornamentation.

As the prospect of a Wheeling terminus of the National Road promoted interest in the original charter of 1816, so the prospective arrival of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad probably influenced the local leadership to prepare forit by reorganizing the bridge company and obtaining a new charter of March 19, 1847. The wooden bridge was finally completed across the western channel in 1837 by the Zanes and the road across the island were absorbed into the new stock company, capitalized at $200,000, and in 1848 increased to $210,000.

The directors of the new organization were James Baker, Henry Moore, F. W. Stevens, W. T. Selby, John McGill, William Paxton, Thomas Hughes, and Daniel C. List, with Thomas Sweeney as president. The directors of the North Western Bank of Virginia and the Merchants' and Mechanics' Bank of Wheeling, with stockholders' consent, were permitted to acquire up to one thousand shares of stock for each bank. The company was granted the right of way across the island and ferry rights to the Virginia shore at Wheeling. Most importantly, the company was given the right to erect and keep a wire suspension toll bridge between Zane's Island and the Virginia shore or bank.

In May of 1847, the directors invited Ellet and Roebling to appear before the board and present plans and estimates of cost. Roebling appeared on May 29 and July 13, on the latter date presenting three different plans for the bridge, one involving a 600-foot span with two abutments placed in the river. Ellet presented his plan on July 2. The plans were too dissimilar to permit adequate cost comparisons. The directors, therefore, asked Roebling to estimate a 24-foot bridge, in addition to the 26-foot structure he had already described. Ellet was also asked to estimate on 24- and 26-feet, in addition to the 22 feet he had recommended. After an exchange of telegrams, the board chose Ellet as engineer. The announcement brought a flurry of congratulatory notices in southern and eastern newspapers. On December 27, Ellet informed the board that he would accept 200 shares of stock in lieu of a $5,000 salary for his services, a custom he followed in other negotiations. This already-known prospect may have influenced the board vote of 7-1 in his favor, not because of the amount of the investment but because it reflected his confidence in his own work.

Threats of suit against the bridge on the part of Pittsburgh interests must be the explanation for the speed with which the directors acted. On June 2, only four days after Roebling's first appearance and before any contract was signed, they ordered timber, based on his plan.

In September, the directors requested Louisville hydraulic cement, possibly never delivered, and purchased a steamship for service to the operation at $2,400. They ordered stone delivered by a Mr. Cawley (also spelled Crolley) from quarries during the winter. A spot on Zane's Island was reserved for the making of the cables, which were assembled on the ground before being lifted into place. This work was contracted to Richards and Bodley, who started to make their first cable in April. Madison Street (now 10th Street), from the river to Main Street, was purchased from the city, Kelly & Miller originally received the contract for the erection of the stonework.

Ellet assured the City Council of Wheeling that although no span of that length had been previously attempted, the laws governing its equilibrium were known and could be measured accurately. He described the span as 1,010 feet from center to center of the supporting towers and 97 feet (93 as built) above the low water surface of the Ohio River. He estimated the record-breaking flood of 1832 at 44.5 feet and claimed that the flooring of the bridge would be high enough to permit the passage of a steamboat having a stack 50 feet above flood water. He estimated the eastern tower to be 153.5 feet above the water, 60 feet above the abutment supporting it, and 21.75 feet above the summit of the western tower. The flooring was 24 feet wide, with a 17.5 foot roadway and foot-walks on either side. The flooring was supported by 12 cables of iron wire, each 4 inches in diameter and 1,380 feet long. The cables rested on iron rollers placed on the summits of the columns, moving back and forth slightly in response to the contraction and expansion of the metals and loads paced upon the flooring. The towers were inclined from the vertical to bring the resultants of all forces, including the moment of the towers themselves, to the center of the base.

Each cable was to be composed of 550 strands of No. 10 wire, and the cables were paired, with three pairs on each side. Ellet provided for 593,400 pounds of live load, or that represented by 1.6 six-horse loads wagons and 500 people occupying the bridge at one time. Another representation was that of 700 head of cattle or an army of 4,000 men. The weight of the bridge itself (dead load) was calculated at 920 pounds per linear foot and the transitory load at 618 pounds per linear foot. He estimated that the cables would be three times as strong as the weight of the bridge itself and three times the additional tension produced by the load upon the flooring. The twelve cables were each 1,380 feet in length and contained 455,500 pounds of wire. The cables were to terminate in chambers in the fastening walls and were arranged to give easy access at the points of connection. From the chambers, heavy bars were continued 60 to 65 feet into the masonry of the wing-walls on the west and into Main Street walls (actually 26 feet deep) on the east and so secured that they could not be moved without collapsing the whole wall.

"The cables and all the iron work will be manufactured at Wheeling, of the best material that the country affords." The columns of stone were not equal in height, the western being 69.75 feet and the eastern 60 feet in height. The bridge that was built corresponds closely to Ellet's description.

In view of the fact that railroads on both sides of the Ohio River would soon be joined in Wheeling, Ellet set forth the facts concerning the serviceability of the Wheeling Bridge to carry railroad traffic. Although he believed suspension bridges were capable of supporting this type of traffic and asserted that for an additional $30,000 the Wheeling structure would accommodate a railroad, he seemed to express caution by warning not to allow more than isolated railroad engines on the bridge, Railway cars were to be horse drawn. The directors of the bridge undoubtedly wanted the rail traffic. On April 17, 1848, they voted additional anchor irons sufficient to bear a railroad train. Early in 1854, the Hempfleld Railroad, which eventually under another name connected Wheeling with Greensburg, Pennsylvania, by way of Washington, Pennsylvania, petitioned to be allowed to cross the bridge, while a contract was signed with the Cleveland and Pittsburgh Railroad, which later had a passenger station in Bridgeport, West Virginia. The object of the contract is not indicated in the minutes, but the Citizen's Railway Company completed 1,866 operated horse-drawn street cars across the bridge to the station. The plans to run trains across the bridge were given up when the B & 0 chose to build a better situated bridge across the Ohio River to Bellaire. It is not difficult to conceive that multiple uses would have caused multiple inconveniences. Another utility that took advantage of the existence of the bridge was a telegraph company which, however, had difficulty meeting its rental obligation.

During 1848, Ellet commuted back and forth between Niagara Falls and Wheeling, over exceedingly rough roads, for he had been granted a contract, in competition with Roebling, to erect a combined railroad and carriage bridge across the Niagara River Gorge. Wheelingites as well as others were thrilled to read about his exploits—how he solved the problem of getting his first line across the gorge by attracting boys into a kite-flying contest; how he was pulled across the chasm on a single wire, and how he drove a horse and carriage across his 7.5 foot wooden service bridge, even before most of the side rails had been installed. This period was marked by constant bickering and litigation with his Niagara backers, characteristic of such enterprises in that age. It is entirely to the credit of the Wheeling Bridge directors that they worked so harmoniously with each other and with others, not even censoring him, at least officially, when the Wheeling Bridge later fell. The Niagara directors dismissed Ellet with a settlement estimated at $10,000. They then engaged John Roebling, who used Ellet's service bridge from which to build a two-deck suspension facility, the railroad running over the head of frightened carriage passengers.

Wheeling people were properly conscious of their bridge's place in history. As the day of temporary bridging of the river drew near, the Daily Gazette had this to say:

"At the time of writing this, the foot bridge is nearly completed, and before this number of our paper goes to press, a crossing will be effected over and high above the broad expanse of the Ohio River; by means of the longest span (1,010) ever projected in the world! The operation of stretching the cables, as well as all the previous operations upon this stupendous structure, are of the most ponderous and Herculean magnitude; but the skill and genius of the Superintendent Engineer, Chas. Ellet, Esq., as well as the skill and intrepidity of his workmen, have rendered them comparatively easy, and thus far entirely successful, and unattended by any accident."

On October 1, when the last cable had been brought over and anchored, the same paper gave forth with this prophetic paean:

"Centuries will roll away, another and another chain will be thrown over the Ohio and the Father of Waters, yet this work will stand and throw a halo of glory around the names of those who executed it, and the people in whose midst it was constructed, as the pioneers on this species of improvement."

The Wheeling Suspension Bridge was officially completed on Saturday, October 20, 1849, and although the timing had not been completely verified, "the city was alive with strangers, and people from the surrounding country, thronging the shore on the other side of the river, anxious to behold the magnificent ceremony of joining Virginia and Ohio in perpetual union, by means of the longest and most beautiful span ever projected in the world. " With the Stars and Stripes fluttering from the eastern tower and the Ohio flag floating from the western tower, the workmen joined the last timber of the floor in the middle of the span, and at 10:30 a.m., Messrs. Charles Ellet and Joseph Dickinson, superintendent of stone and iron work, seated in a one-horse carriage, while the crowd watched with breathless anxiety, drove their carriage like a triumphal chariot at a dizzy height through the air. "The roar of cannon announced its safe arrival at the western shore, and a long and triumphant shout broke from the thousands of delighted spectators. This was followed by Gen. Tom Thumb's heavy two-horse vehicle drawn by Shetland ponies presented by Queen Victoria." Tom Thumb himself was late in arriving, but the Daily Wheeling Gazette pronounced the day beautiful, "a triumph of which the people of Wheeling, and indeed of which those in all parts of the United States may justly feel proud."

The October 20 celebration was but a warmup for the formal opening and its festivities on November 15. This day was punctuated by the music of the Zanesville band and the firing of cannons. A continuous train of people moved over the bridge from 3 o'clock until dark.

"At 6 o'clock, the thousand lamps, hung up on the wires, were lighted almost simulanteously and presented an elegant and graceful curve of fire, high above the river, that was never excelled in beauty. It forcibly reminded one of Mr. Clay's remarks, a few days Since, when looking at the work from a distance, while his face flowed with pride and exultation-'Take that down! You might as well try to take down the rainbow.'"

Ohio and Indiana leaders were conspicuous in the crowd, and it was the Hon. R. W. Thompson of Indiana, dubbed by the Gazette as the "lion of the Pacific Railroad Convention," who in his address on the rostrum in front of the Monroe House "let the cat out of the bag" and revealed the dreams the railroad men were having concerning the bridge:

"We have heard of your bridge in Indiana and we have not been ignorant of its progress and its purposes. Let me assure you that in that State a series of railroads are steadily tending towards one great thoroughfare, and pointing unerringly as the needle points to the poll, to the West end of that bridge."