Bridges dot the landscape of mountainous West Virginia, carrying roads and railways over creeks and rivers. Pedestrian bridges carry sidewalks and the occasional footpath over obstacles of all sorts, and numerous overpasses were built along with West Virginia’s modern highways. In the highway system alone there are more than 6,300 bridges, and there are many private pedestrian and auto bridges, as well as railroad bridges, throughout the state.
Bridges have been a feature of the landscape from the early days of European settlement, but the 19th century saw a legion of bridges built, from humble bridges built by non-professionals to monumental structures across major rivers. The earliest bridges were modest affairs constructed on a temporary basis. The first systematic building of bridges came with the construction of the turnpike roads authorized by the Virginia Board of Public Works. Many of the turnpike bridges were simple trestles, with their members exposed to the weather.
The oldest bridge still in use in West Virginia is the Elm Grove Stone Arch Bridge, constructed in 1817, which carries the National Road over Little Wheeling Creek in Wheeling. Another bridge of this type is the Van Metre Ford Stone Arch Bridge, constructed in 1832, which crosses the Opequon Creek east of Martinsburg. Because of their cost and the lack of skilled masons, stone bridges such as these did not blossom into a major type in the 19th century.
More familiar are the covered bridges, which were roofed and sided as protection against the weather. The covered bridge era began at the start of the 19th century and extended in West Virginia until the first decade of the 20th. The best-known covered bridge builder was Lemuel Chenoweth, who built numerous turnpike bridges. The record is incomplete, but at least a dozen major timber bridges are credited to him, including the famous 1852 Philippi bridge, and its sibling, the 1853 Barrackville bridge, both recently restored. Other notable covered bridges were erected across the state, including those at Marlinton, Caldwell, Cheat River, and the back-channel bridge at Wheeling Island.
With the advent of iron as a structural material, the all-timber covered bridges were displaced by the all-iron and later steel truss bridges, beginning with the Howe truss in which iron rods replaced tension members. This simple form had many advantages over the more traditional patterns, such as the all-timber Burr and Long trusses, and found wide application with 19th-century railroad bridges. The transformation from wood to iron bridges also marked the transformation from the ‘‘vernacular’’ or craft approach to formally designed bridges, proportioned by scientific methods in the hands of trained engineers.
Among the very first use of iron for bridges were suspension trusses developed by Wendel Bollman and Albert Fink and widely employed on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Fink’s multispanned railway bridge at Fairmont attracted international attention with its three 205-foot spans. Later long-span railway bridges were built across the Ohio River at such places as Steubenville, Wheeling, Benwood, and Parkersburg. Also notable among mid-19th century works was the great Tray Run viaduct in cast iron, also by Fink, built near Rowlesburg in Preston County and recognized as a significant feature on the B&O from Baltimore to Wheeling.
For highway bridges, the widespread use of iron and later steel took the form of prefabricated bridges produced by many fabricating shops in the northeast United States. These so-called catalog bridges were erected throughout the state in large numbers, often under the direction of county commissioners.
By the end of the 19th century, reinforced concrete had become a rival of metal truss bridges for highway construction. West Virginia’s most prolific builder of short-and medium-span concrete bridges was Frank Duff McEnteer of Clarksburg. During two decades ending in 1931, his Concrete Steel Bridge Company built more than 1,000 bridges in West Virginia and elsewhere. In contrast to McEnteer’s more modest bridges, the monumental Fairmont High Level Bridge was under construction from 1918 to 1921.
The most famous of all of West Virginia’s historic bridges is the 1849 Wheeling Suspension Bridge. This bridge spawned a number of early wire suspension bridges in Morgantown, Fairmont, Sutton, Charleston, and Guyandotte near Huntington. The suspension bridge tradition continues in West Virginia today, but in the form of cable-stayed bridges such as the spectacular single-pier bridges crossing the Ohio River at Weirton and Huntington. In cable-stayed bridges the support cables fan directly from the tower to the bridge deck, and not from a suspended cable.
West Virginia’s best-known bridge of modern times is the steel arch New River Gorge bridge on U.S. 19 in Fayette County. Completed in 1977, the span soars 876 feet above the river and has a total road length of 3,030 feet. Set within a background of mountain vistas, the bridge serves as a major tourist attraction and is the site of the Bridge Day festival each October.
Completed in 2008, the Blennerhassett Bridge carries Corridor D (U.S. 50) over the Ohio River and connects Parkersburg and Belpre, Ohio. Three of the piers for the 4,009-foot tied arch bridge are located on Blennerhassett Island, but there is no access from the bridge to the island. The construction of the bridge completed the construction of Corridor D from Clarksburg to the Ohio border.
The Blennerhassett Bridge cost $120 million to construct, making it the most expensive bridge built in the state up to that point. Two years later, however, another bridge opened that cost far more.
The Interstate 64 bridge crossing the Kanawha River between Dunbar and South Charleston in Kanawha County was completed in 2010. At 760 feet, the main span of the bridge is the longest concrete box girder span in North America. The bridge, which carries eastbound traffic, cost more than $196 million to build.
This Article was written by Emory L. Kemp
Last Revised on January 29, 2013
Cohen, Stan. West Virginia's Covered Bridges. Charleston: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1992.
Kemp, Emory L. West Virginia's Historic Bridges. Morgantown: West Virginia University, 1984.