The Wheeling suspension bridge case, formally known as State of Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Co., was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in February 1852.
The Wheeling suspension bridge had opened to great fanfare in 1849. It carried the National Road (now U.S. 40) over the east channel of the Ohio River and onto Wheeling Island. With a 1,010-foot main span, it was for many years the longest bridge of its type in the world.
As Wheeling celebrated its completion, the industrialists of western Pennsylvania were quietly plotting the bridge’s destruction. The bridge opponents filed an original proceeding directly with the U.S. Supreme Court to abate the bridge as a public nuisance because it obstructed passage of large steamboats, thereby impeding interstate commerce. Pennsylvania’s lawyer, Edwin M. Stanton, later President Lincoln’s secretary of war, told the court: ‘‘the injury occasioned by this obstruction is deep and lasting.’’ The court referred the case to a special master, R. H. Woolworth of New York, who took testimony and reported to the court that the bridge was ‘‘an obstruction to navigation resulting in injury to packets plying waters leading to and from Pittsburgh.’’
The opinion of the Supreme Court was delivered in May of 1852, basically adopting the special master’s conclusion. However, the majority opinion stated that the bridge could remain if it could be raised to an elevation of 111 feet above low water and maintained at that height for a distance of 300 feet. The owners of the bridge were given ten months to comply with the order. Practically speaking, this amounted to a destruction order since it was impossible to raise the structure.
The bridge owners and their supporters immediately set out to lobby Congress to declare the suspension bridge as part of a post road, entitled to special protection as a mail-carrying route. Steamboats would have to adjust their smokestacks when passing under the bridge. On August 31, 1852, this proposal became law. In 1854, a violent windstorm severely damaged the suspension bridge, and Pennsylvania returned to the Supreme Court in an attempt to stop reconstruction. The Court ultimately held that the 1852 law prevailed.
The Wheeling bridge controversy is of little interest to modern legal scholars, because the principles involved have since been absorbed fully into law. At the time, however, the original court case represented an important assumption by the Supreme Court of power to interpret the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. The corrective action by Congress likewise expanded the regulatory powers of the federal government, which came to fuller fruition in the Interstate Commerce Act a quarter century later.
This Article was written by H. John Rogers
Last Revised on November 19, 2010
Monroe, Elizabeth Brand. The Wheeling Bridge Case. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press, 1992.
Cite This Article
Rogers, H. John "The Wheeling Suspension Bridge Case." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 19 November 2010. Web. 23 March 2017.