One bridge was built in 1826, the other in 1932. One guess which is which!
Both bridges carry the National Road/US 40 over Wheeling Creek near Blaine in Belmont County, Ohio. It’s just five miles from the Ohio River, the border with West Virginia.
The lower bridge came first. It’s the oldest standing bridge in Ohio, and is the longest of the few remaining S bridges in the state. Notice its “S” curvature? This was done in the name of economy: it’s less expensive to build and maintain a bridge that’s perpendicular to the creek it crosses. They merely curved the approaches to meet the road.
This was just fine in the days of horses and buggies with their slow speeds. As automobiles took over, it became a hazard. Drivers had to slow way down to negotiate the S. Some didn’t slow down in time.
Moreover, west of this bridge lay a very steep hill. It was challenging for cars of the day to climb. I’m sure pedestrians and horses didn’t much enjoy the climb either!
The upper bridge made travel easier on three counts: it eliminated the S, it offered a wider deck (38.1 feet vs. 26.9 feet), and it created a gentler rise to the top of the hill.
I know of four other S bridges on the National Road: one in Pennsylvania (here) and three in Ohio (two here, the third here). That last one was still open to traffic when I visited it in 2011, and I drove over it. By 2013 it, too, was closed (here).
This is one of my favorite road-trip photos. I just love the juxtaposition of the 1828 stone-arch S bridge against the 1933 open-spandrel concrete-arch bridge. Both are engineering and visual marvels in their own ways.
But what I love most about this photo is that my friend Jeff, in his orange shirt, cuts across the scene. He provides such visual interest, injecting orange and blue into an otherwise beige and green scene. He also shows the massive scale of these two bridges.
The newer bridge runs so much higher than the older one because it means to level out what had been a steep hill. The ascent from the end of the older bridge was quite challenging for cars of the day.
Bridge technology has existed since ancient times, but no bridge could span wide gaps until the suspension bridge was invented in the early 1800s. Even then, the technology had to be refined and improved before it could span a gap as wide as the Ohio River. And so it wasn’t until 1851 that the first bridge across that great waterway was built: the suspension bridge at Wheeling, WV. Following it in 1866 was the Roebling Suspension Bridge in Cincinnati. Like the Wheeling bridge, it still serves.
It was, as its name suggests, designed and built by famed suspension-bridge designer and builder John Roebling. Except that’s not the whole story.
In 1894 the bridge’s owners paid William Hildenbrand to significantly rework the bridge. Retaining the original towers and cables, he replaced Roebling’s deck with a new, wider, metal deck, and added new steel cables to bear its weight. Work completed in 1898 without ever closing the bridge to traffic.
And it turns out to be wrong to say this bridge is in Cincinnati. Only its north approach is. The rest of it — indeed, most of the Ohio River itself — is in Kentucky. So this is the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge of Covington, KY. That’s where we went to photograph this bridge, by the way. Memo to leaders in Covington: It’s too hard to park in your city thanks to the old-fashioned coin parking meters. Who carries change anymore?
Garrett and I didn’t linger long on the bridge — it was 40 degrees with strong winds. Our hands and ears quickly grew cold. We walked out partway onto the pedestrian deck long enough to get some photos, including these above and below.
When our hands and ears couldn’t take it anymore, we headed back to the car. But it was good to experience this bridge even for a few moments.
This final spring break trip was so short and lightly planned that it felt a little anticlimactic. Garrett had just had his wisdom teeth removed and needed several recovery days before he felt like traveling. And then the weather was bad for a 300-mile radius, limiting our options. So it wasn’t until Tuesday of that week that we decided to just go over to Cincy and see whatever there was to see, preferably indoors.
I knew for sure that we’d visit the American Sign Museum. I’ve wanted to go for years. My old-road excursions have put me in contact with lots of Americana, frequently in neglected condition. At the American Sign Museum, everything is restored and fully functioning. And I hoped to connect with some childhood memories.
I admit it: I went primarily to see the neon. I’m just old enough to remember neon’s waning days along America’s roadside. As a kid, I loved to drive US 31 through Roseland, a little burg just north of my hometown of South Bend. It’s a strip of motels, mostly, serving the nearby Indiana Toll Road. Many of them boasted neon signs, one of which was an iconic Holiday Inn sign similar to the one above. There was even a Roto-Sphere, a neon-pointed rotating star, on that strip. It’s still there, actually. I have no idea why I didn’t photograph it when I made my trip along Indiana’s US 31 many years ago! But you can see it on this page of Roto-Spheres.
The museum didn’t disappoint, serving up neon aplenty (like the Sky-Vu Motel sign that used to be on US 40 in Kansas City, Missouri). But the museum also educates its guests well on the history of American advertising signs, and other icons, like this Big Boy statue. But notice especially the signs behind it, individual letters all lit from behind with light bulbs. Such signs preceded the neon era.
But back to the neon. I’m not quite old enough to remember McDonald’s signs like this one, although I do remember my hometown still having a twin-arch walk-up Mickey D’s not far from my great-grandmother’s house.
I also remember seeing Howard Johnson’s hotels and restaurants by the roadside, but it was well past that chain’s heyday. Mom tells stories of her father, who often traveled on business during her 1950s girlhood, preferring to stay at Howard Johnson’s.
One section of the museum set up a Main Street of sorts, with recreated storefronts lit by neon signs.
A whole bunch of signs, all from businesses local to Cincinnati, illuminate an event space in the back of the museum’s large building.
Backlit plastic signs show up here and there at the museum, as well. As a kid I liked these distinctive Shell signs. They were still pretty common when I was small.
Our tour of the museum wrapped with a visit to a neon sign shop that operates out of the museum’s building. This shop is independent from the museum, but does all of the museum’s neon restorations. Here, this fellow is joining glass tubes.
I also shot a roll of film inside the museum, but as of this writing those photos haven’t come back from the lab yet. If they turn out, I’ll do another post from the museum.
Brick National Road near Norwich, Ohio Canon PowerShot S95 2011
Ohio has some deeply delightful brick and concrete sections of the old National Road, some of which you can still drive. Like this section. It’s good, rumbly brick.
Thus endeth the series of old-road photos to celebrate Down the Road’s 10th blogiversary. But I have more to say about blogging and this blog, so watch for more “Ten Years of Down the Road” posts to come.