The Wheeling Suspension Bridge closed to vehicular traffic on September 20. It will be closed for at least a year, say officials with the West Virginia Department of Transportation.
Too many vehicles heavier than the posted 2-ton weight limit have been crossing the bridge, according to Secretary of Transportation Byrd White. “People just ignore” the posted weight-limit signs, he said.
The bridge was closed for several weeks over the summer after a bus crossed it and then got stuck under a barrier entering Wheeling. The bridge was inspected, and some damage was found to the structure.
The bridge was repaired and new barriers were installed to block large vehicles, but vehicles over the weight limit kept crossing the bridge.
The Department of Transportation hopes to rehabilitate the bridge during its closure. They will reevaluate whether to allow vehicular traffic again at that time.
The bridge remains open to walkers and bicyclists.
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.
You don’t see many suspension bridges here in flyover country.
This one was built in 1859 in Carlyle, Illinois, on a mail and stage road between Vincennes, Indiana, and St. Louis, Missouri. US 50 follows much of that 1806 road’s path today. I read conflicting reports of whether US 50 ever crossed this bridge, but motor vehicles did travel along it until 1932, when it was closed and a new bridge built nearby. The bridge was built with horses and buggies in mind, and so a few trucks broke through the deck! The bridge sat abandoned for more than 30 years and deteriorated rapidly. This 1936 photo is from Historic American Engineering Record.
Fortunately, the bridge was restored in the 1950s and was renamed for Major General William Dean, a Carlyle native who served during the Korean War.
It has been a pedestrian bridge since, and was a popular spot on Memorial Day when a friend and I went out to see it.
The deck is narrower today than it was when it carried regular traffic. I don’t think my little car would fit!
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 blog [now defunct] 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.
I’ve driven the National Road from its beginning in Baltimore, MD to its end in Vandaila, IL. To read everything I’ve ever written about it, click here.