Battle Scarred Wheeling Suspension Bridge: A story of West Virginia

    Wheeling Suspension Bridge, Photo courtesy: Chris Light
    Wheeling Suspension Bridge, Photo courtesy: Chris Light

    There are few things as West Virginian as a good bridge.  The state is home to countless bridges of all sorts and sizes.  Bridge stories have woven themselves into the story of the Mountain State and include tales such as “The West Virginia Town that Requested Soviet Foreign Aid” in order to rebuild their broken bridge as well as an arch bridge that has  made it onto the back of the American quarter — West Virginia is a state filled with bridges.

    Few bridges in America, however, have a history that can rival the bridge connecting one West Virginia island to the state’s mainland — The Wheeling Suspension Bridge.

    Dating back to 1847, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge harkens to one of the Federal Government’s first public works project: The National Road.

    First conceived in 1811, the National Road initially linked the Potomac River to Wheeling, Virginia, the far-western frontier.

    As the nation continued to push west, so did the need to provide adequate transportation to the county’s Capitol from places west of the Ohio River, therefore, on May 15, 1820, Congress authorized an extension of the road to St. Louis, on the Mississippi River.

    Work on the extension between Wheeling and Zanesville, Ohio, began immediately and was completed in 1833 to the new state capital of Columbus, Ohio.

    Though charters to construct a bridge over the Ohio River had been issued to the Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company in 1816, no work had ever began on a bridge over the Ohio and after a number of delays, a new charter was obtained in 1847.

    Design contests were held and after much deliberation, Charles Ellet received a contract to build a suspension bridge over the historic waterway and within two years, the bridge was complete — making it the largest suspension bridge in the world at the time of its construction.  The Wheeling bridge was also the first to span the Ohio River.

    Oldest known photo of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge. Notice the flooded Ohio River, photographed 1852. W.C. Brown Collection.
    Oldest known photo of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge. Notice the flooded Ohio River, photographed 1852. W.C. Brown Collection.

    Like the State of West Virginia that would soon be birthed from war, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge would experience more than its fair share of struggles.

    Just five years after being completed, a strong windstorm destroyed the deck of the bridge through torsional movement and vertical undulations that rose almost as high as the towers.The bridge was rebuilt and re-outfitted several times through the 1800s, but by 1953 a report indicated that many of the suspension cables being used on the bridge dated back to the original construction over a century earlier, with the newest cables dating back to the time of the Civil War.

    Recognizing that the bridge’s maintenance was long overdue, the deck was completely rebuilt in 1956 and , the road was widened from 16.25 feet to 20 feet. The road and sidewalk were reconstructed with an open steel grating that reduces wind resistance, and rests on lightened steel floor beams.

    After being taken out of operation and added to the National Register, the West Virginia Division of Highways restored the bridge and placed it back into service during the early 1980s – this provided a second overpass back to mainland West Virginia from “The Island.”

    Spanning the distance of 1,010 feet across the Ohio River, the bridge is tall enough for barges to pass underneath.

    Today, the bridge serves as the oldest vehicular suspension bridge in the United States still in use.

    Like the state is bridges, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge is no stranger to trouble.  In 2011, a vehicle driving at high speed lost control and crashed into the sidewalk panels of the bridge. The damage to the bridge was enough that it was closed temporarily so that the panels could be fixed.

    In March 2013, a non-load bearing cable snapped, causing the bridge to be closed until the cable was repaired and detailed inspections were completed.

    And this past spring, the bridge was again closed to all vehicle and pedestrian traffic after a Greyhound bus attempted to cross the bridge and damaged the structure.  Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of WVDOH, the bridge has been inspected and placed back into service… Like West Virginia, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge is aged and battle scarred, yet she still stands – bridging the gap between diverse peoples and regions.

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    1. My g-g-Grandfather, John Anderson came from Ireland, helped build the bridge was caretaker and toll keeper till his death in 1872. would love more information.

    2. Larry there is a pictorial book by Emory Leland Kemp “the Wheeling Suspension Bridge” on Amazon.

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