I’d only ever zipped through Wheeling on I-70 before. The tunnel was always fun to drive through, but every time I emerged from it there was the old suspension bridge stretching across the river. I always swore that next time I’d get off the interstate and drive it.
As part of the tour of Wheeling Ryan Stanton of The Bell Rang so graciously gave us, we first went to the waterfront to take in the bridge in profile. There we could see the bridge make its connection to Wheeling Island. The panorama below (thanks, Autostitch!) shows the bridge’s west end and the buildings along the shore. Here it is in its original size.
The National Road was extended into Ohio starting in 1825, but for many years the only way across the Ohio River was by ferry. The need for a bridge was recognized as early as 1816, anticipating the road’s extension.
When you need to span a large gap, suspension bridges are just the way to go, and so two leading suspension-bridge designers were invited to submit designs. Many delays prevented the bridge from being built until 1849, but at its completion it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, 1,010 feet between its towers.
The Wheeling Suspension Bridge is only the 109th longest suspension bridge in the world today, but it is the oldest suspension bridge in the United States that still carries cars. Actually, as the bridge was designed to handle horse-and-buggy loads, trucks and buses are kept off it, the speed limit is low, and cars are told to stay back 50 feet from each other. The steel-grate deck they drive on dates to 1956, but most of the cables are original.
In 1921, nine years after the National Old Trails Road took over most of the National Road’s route and seven years before Madonnas of the Trail began appearing on the road courtesty of the Daughters of the American Revolution, those Daughters also placed this plaque on the bridge. The bridge then spent many years carrying US 40’s traffic. But after I-70 was built and US 40 was routed onto it, West Virginia has quietly maintained the bridge as part of its state highway network, although it is not currently part of a signed route.
We lingered at the bridge in the chilly air that morning. My boys even walked out along the sidewalk halfway over the Ohio River – yes, the old bridge carries pedestrians, too! But we wanted to see the National Road across Ohio, and to squeeze it in that day we’d have to move along. I finally kept my promise to myself as we drove over the bridge, its steel grate deck causing the car to rumble. We found US 40 on Wheeling Island and headed off into Ohio.