The graceful suspension bridge which spans the Ohio at Wheeling has long been the admiration of the voyager down the beautiful river. In its earlier days it was the marvel of all who saw it, and the reports which went abroad concerning it were received with many grains of salt. While it stands it will be a monument to the courage of the men who embarked in an enterprise considered so hazardous, and of the skill of the engineers who devised and built the then novel structure.
At a very early day the need had been felt of such a link between the city and the Island, and thence to the Ohio shore. In 1816 the "Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company" was chartered to supply the lacking link. The incorporators of this company were Archibald Woods, Noah Zane, Samuel Sprigg, Joseph Caldwell, John White, Moses Shepherd, Notley Hays, Benjamin Ruggles, George Paull, James Barnes and Elijah Woods, names very generally identified with the history of Wheeling. On the supposition that the bridge could be built and maintained, there were visions of comfortable dividends on the stock. In the charter it was provided that a man, horse, mule or ox might pass over for twelve and a half cents; a carriage, wagon or cart for the small sum of twenty-five cents a wheel. Anybody fortunate enough to have a four-wheel vehicle was to be allowed to go and come for two dollars, and dollars were not the most plentiful things in those early days. Neat cattle were to pass over at half the cost of a wheel, and a sheep, lamb, hog or goat might go over if he happened to have two cents about his person.
But the bridge was not yet built nor destined soon to be. There were some stumbling blocks in the charter. The bridge was not to interfere with navigation either by obstructing the river with its piers or by placing the superstructure so low that the river craft of that time could not pass under in time of floods. In case the bridge did these unseemly things it was to be declared a public nuisance and to be liable to abatement. Discouragements were so many and great that for seventeen years nothing was done under the charter. In 1833 was begun the erection of a wooden bridge over the backwater to connect Wheeling Island with the Ohio side. It required about four years in that slow going time to complete the work at a cost of $65,000. The contract price left the Zane Brothers, the builders, in deep water. Earnest, repeated and always unsuccessful efforts were made to induce the Government to build the great bridge that was to span the main channel. With the National Road halting at each bank of the Ohio, it was thought that Congress would regard the supplying of this link as a patriotic pleasure no less than duty. But Congress was of another mind, and the solid, energetic men of Wheeling at last had to buckle to the work themselves.
By an act of the General Assembly of Virginia, March 19, 1847 legislation of 1816 and 1837 was revived, except that the new charter did away with a pier bridge and provided for a suspension bridge instead. The Board of Directors was composed of James Baker, Henry Moore, E. N. Stevens, W.T. Selby, Thomas Sweeney, John W. Gill, William Paxton, Thomas Hughes, and Daniel C. List. Thomas Sweeney was made President. John Gilchrist was engaged to locate the abutments.
Two young engineers, Charles Ellet, of Philadelphia, and F.A. Roebeling, of New York, came forward with plans, the former proposing the long single span of the present structure, the latter two spans with wing walls. The two plans were combined and Mr. Ellet retained to supervise the construction. The contractors got into trouble, and the company took the work into its own hands, placing in charge Engineer Ellet as Superintendent. Under these auspices the bridge was completed in 1850, and a marvel of beauty and strength it was.
The bridge was a thorn in the side of Pittsburgh, which feared that it would make Wheeling practically the head of navigation and so put her own nose out of joint. Pennsylvania brought suit to abate the alleged nuisance. But the bridge was opened to travel August 1, 1850, and though the suits went on, Pennsylvania never did the great bridge any harm. Worse than law suits was a terrific wind storm, May 17, 1854, which wrenched the cables from the anchorage and piled the structure up in the river. The bridge was rebuilt and travel over it began again in January, 1856.
This structure was intended to be temporary only, and yet six years after its erection it was subjected to a terrific strain and stood the storm. It was Fairtime, and the bridge was packed with people and vehicles stampeded from the Fair Grounds by the storm. The wind lashed and pounded the bridge, which seemed doomed again. The people were panic-stricken. The scene has been described as resembling the rout of an army. But the cables held fast and the bridge outrode the wind storm. In the jam a small boy was killed, and this was the only casualty. In 1860 the structure was again rebuilt and made stronger. In 1872 further improvement was made and the bridge enlarged on the general plan of Roebeling's original suggestions save as to span. This work has cost in all about $400,000. When it was first erected the span of 1,010 feet was the longest in the world. Longer spans have since been constructed, but no more symmetrical and beautiful bridge structure stands anywhere.
Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, September 14, 1886 (Special Natural Gas Issue)
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