The wire suspension bridge over the Ohio River at Wheeling was opened for traffic in October 1849 amid great public acclaim. It was the longest (1,010 feet) clear span in the world. It ushered in America’s ascendancy in long-span suspension bridge building, which lasted for more than a century. The bridge still serves local traffic and has been designated a national landmark by both the National Park Service and the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Charles Ellet Jr., its designer, actively promoted suspension bridges in America following his sojourn at the École des Ponts et Chausseés in Paris followed by a tour of French suspension bridges. His first success came when he was appointed chief engineer of the Fairmont Bridge (1841–42) across the Schuylkill River at Philadelphia, which served as the prototype for the Wheeling Suspension Bridge.
Ellet secured contracts for both the Wheeling and Niagara Falls suspension bridges in 1847. As a result of a dispute with the owners, Ellet was dismissed from the Niagara bridge, but successfully completed the Wheeling bridge in 1849. The distinctive features of the bridge are the main and stay cables, the vertical suspenders, massive stone towers, timber-stiffening trusses flanking the roadway, and large stone anchorages. By using drawn wrought-iron wire, a superior strength was obtained. Wheeling was a center for iron production, wire was one of many products produced in the area, and all of the components of the bridge were supplied locally. In addition, the Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company undertook the construction, operation and maintenance of this great bridge, using local stockholders to provide the financial resources. Neither state nor federal funds were used.
With the completion of the suspension bridge, the people of Wheeling had secured a confluence of transportation systems. The bridge carried the National Road over the Ohio River, the head of summer navigation on the river was at Wheeling, and the long expected Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was due to reach Wheeling at the end of 1852. In recognition of this hub of transportation, a new U.S. Custom House was completed in 1859 to serve the port of Wheeling. It later served as the birthplace of the state of West Virginia.
On May 17, 1854, a violent windstorm swept up the Ohio River and destroyed the deck of the bridge and threw the cables off their saddles at the tower tops. Within a few months one lane of the bridge was back in service. Under the direction of William K. McComas the bridge was rebuilt in 1860 with timber stiffening trusses and the regrouping of the six cables on each side into a pair. This altered appearance is substantially what one sees today except for the deck, with the timber flooring having been replaced with an open steel grid in 1956. Additional repairs were undertaken in 1983 and in 1999, when an overhaul was completed in time for the bridge’s 150th anniversary. This bridge is not only of regional interest but also is well known by historians and engineers around the world. The bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
Read the National Register nomination.
This Article was written by Emory L. Kemp
Last Revised on February 15, 2013
Kemp, Emory L. & Beverly B. Fluty. The Wheeling Suspension Bridge. Charleston: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1999.