The Wheeling Suspension Bridge is the world's oldest existing suspension bridge, having a span of 1,010 feet. The bridge was designed by Charles Ellet Jr., and built by the Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company, beginning in 1847. The bridge gained national prominence in 1969, when the American Society of Civil Engineers dedicated it as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. In 1975, the National Park Service designated it as a National Historic Landmark.
The structure was first opened to traffic on November 11, 1849. The bridge cost between $200,000.00 and $250,000.00, which was financed by the sale of Bridge Company stock. At that time, the city's population was less than 13,000. A toll house stood in front of the north end of the tower. Examples of the 1849 tolls were: man and a horse - 10 cents, six-horse carriage - 15 cents, four-horse mail coach - $1.25 per month, hogs and sheep 2 cents per head, and a Western stagecoach paid $2,000.00 per year. The bridge, when originally dedictated in 1849, displayed 1,010 lights, one for each foot of the bridge length. These lights brilliantly outlined the cables. Shortly before the celebration, noted statesman Henry Clay remarked, "Take that down! You might as well try to take down the rainbow."
On the afternoon of May 17, 1854, violent winds caused tremendous vertical oscillations of the bridge. The hangers finally broke loose and the deck dropped into the river, forcing the cables on the south side off their saddles, and pulling some cables from their end anchorages. A newspaperman who happened to be strolling on the bridge that evening gave a full description of the now-classic resonant vibations of the bridge, which underwent torsional movements and vertical undulations that tossed the flooring almost to the height of the towers. Except for some of the cables, the entire structure collapsed into the river. The structure was dragged to shore by the steamboat Courier, at a cost of $20.00. The bridge company, as indicated by minutes and newspaper accounts, again summoned Mr. Ellet Jr. into service to restore the structure. With the help of Captian William K. McComas, superintendent, he had a 14 foot version of the bridge functioning again, on a one-way traffic basis, within less than three months. On the morning of July 25, Charles Ellet Jr. and Captian McComas reinaugurated traffic by crossing the bridge in a carriage. According to company's minutes, the temporary span continued to serve until the Summer of 1859. McComas, now engineer as well as superintendent, rebuilt the bridge at a cost of between $35,000 and $40,000.00. It is believed that he incorporated Roebling principles into his revision. He spent $50.00 on a trip to Niagara Falls to study John Roebling's bridge across the gorge.
The bridge was reconstructed using much of the original material. In a 1933 history of the bridge, T. R. Lawson, Dean of Rensslear Polytechnic, states that McComas increased the wires of the bridge by a third, reduced the 12 cables to four, of about 7 1/4 inches in diameter each, and wrapped with No. 14 wire. The original 12 cables had approximately 6,600 No. 10 gauge wires. He added guy piers above and below the bridge on both river banks, and placed wind guys at points along the platform. The wind guys and the re-grouping of the main cables indicate the influence of the Niagara Bridge. However, he placed the walkways in an awkward position, outside the suspenders. He was able to open his version of the bridge to traffic on a limited basis July 20, 1860, and to all traffic on August 1 of the same year.
In 1872, under the direction of William Hilderbrand, engineer for the Roebling Company, the floor was further widened by forcing the cables apart and placing sidewalks inside the hangers. A system of diagonal stay cables from the tower tops to the deck was also installed in accordance with a scheme designed by the Roeblings.
In 1886, the distance between the cables was further increased by the replacement of the floorbeams, using two 7 inch steel channels, back-to-back, spaced 8 feet apart and trussed with 1-1/4 inch rods. The timber stiffening trusses were made deeper. The anchorages were opened up for a distance of about 30 feet to expose the cable and their anchors, and when no corrosion was found, the cable anchors were reinforced and the masonry anchorages restored. Truss braces were added at that time.
From time to time, throughout the history of the structure, numerous repairs, ranging from minor to extensive maintenance programs, have been made to keep the bridge in useable condition, and to maintain its Historical significance.
The suspension bridge, as we know it today crosses the main channel of the Ohio River, connecting the Wheeling Island with the main town of Wheeling. It consists of a single span 1,008.5 feet long, measured between the centers of the towers. The main cables are anchored below the roadway surface of the two highway approaches to the towers. The masonry towers, which support the cables, are made of massive size sandstone, some of which measure 4 feet by 8 feet by 2 feet. The towers are founded on sand and gravel. They also serve as abutments to the highway approaches. The summits of the towers on the eastern, or Wheeling shore, are 153 feet above low water level of the Ohio River. Their actual height from the base of the stone work is 82 feet; the abutment 22 feet, the towers 60 feet. The Western towers, on Zane's Island (as it was known at that time), are 132 feet; the abutment is 63 feet, and the columns of the towers 69 feet. The summits of the eastern towers are 21 3/4 feet above the westers towers.The bridge roadway is 20 feet wide, to accommodate two lanes of traffic. There is a four foot wide sidewalk on each side of the bridge.
There are four main suspension cables, two along each side of the bridge. The superstructure is supported from the cables by means of spaced hanger rods attached to the ends of the floorbeams. Each main cable is approximately 7-1/2 inch in diameter, containing 2,200 No. 10 gauge wires, laid parallel and covered with a neoprene wrap, rather than the original No. 14 gauge wire. The steel hanger rods from each main cable to the floorbeams vary in diameter from 1 inch to 1-1/8 inches.
The present stiffening trusses are classic Howe timber trusses with cast iron joint fittings and adjustable wrought iron vertical tension rods, and date from the 1860 reconstruction. The Howe Truss was patented in 1840 and used extensively for both rail and road bridges. Ellet used such a truss on the original deck in 1849. The trusses are approximately 6'- 2" and 6'- 9" deep, and are deeper at mid-span. The strength of the bridge, as computed by Mr. Ellet, is sufficient to resist 297 tons, or 32 heavily laden road wagons, 192 horses and 500 people, a weight equal to an army of 4000 men --- a greater probable weight than it will ever be required to sustain.
For more than two decades following his sojourn in France, Ellet was an enthusiastic promoter of suspension bridges. Ellet's contributions to American pre-eminence in long span suspension bridges is evident through his active promotion of the suspension principle and through a series of bold and innovative proposals for long span bridges at Washington, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Niagara and in Connecticut. In an age when large rolled wrought iron sections were not available and cast iron members were limited in size and tensile capacity, the possibility of utilizing a superior material, such as drawn wrought iron wire, was most attractive.
The Wheeling Suspension Bridge is the most significent Antebellum engineering structure in North America. It is internationally recognized as a landmark of unique significance. In addition to its significance in the history of engineering, it was a vital link in the great National Road and played an important role in the development of Wheeling as a transportation and industrial center. Therefore, every effort will be made to preserve this unique monument.
A current multi-million dollar renovation project includes the replacement of the grid decking, the unwrapping of the cables, repairing as needed, and subsequently the re-wrapping with wire wrap. The stone towers are to be pointed and cleaned. The wooden stiffening truss is to be repaired. A new decorative lighting system is also to be placed. The repairs are scheduled to take 13 months to complete.
Material originally presented on the West Virginia Division of Highways District 6 website.