The National Road: West Virginia
Wheeling Suspension Bridge
Wheeling and the National Road is home to one of the greatest engineering achievements in American History. The nearly 170 year old Wheeling Suspension Bridge is the oldest operating suspension bridge in the world. The bridge was the first to span a main channel of the Ohio River (1). In 1836, a two span covered bridge opened over the back channel of the Ohio in Wheeling. This bridge crossed at the site of an 1893 truss and modern day bridge that carries Route 40 over the back channel to this day! (2)
The story of the bridge was amplified by a bidding and design war between two prominent suspension bridge designers, Charles Ellet, Jr. and John Roebling. The two rivals would compete for the commission until Ellet’s design won out in 1847. The 1,010 foot bridge took two years to complete. It opened on October 20, 1849, although the official grand opening would take place on November 15. The bridge was immediately put into service as a toll bridge.
The Terrific Storm
On May 17, 1854, a violent gale destroyed most of the bridge with much of the span crashing into the Ohio. One account of the collapse read:“For a few moments we watched it with breathless anxiety, lunging like a ship in the storm; at one time it rose to nearly the heighth of the towers then fell, and twisted and writhed, and was dashed almost bottom upward. At last there seemed to be a determined twist along the entire span, about one half of the flooring being nearly reversed, and down went the immense structure from its dizzy heighth to the stream below, with an appalling crash and roar. Nearly the entire structure struck the water at the same instant dashing up an unbroken column of foam across the river, to the heighth of at least forty feet! " (3)
Many have compared the 1854 collapsed to that of the famed 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
The collapse ended Ellet’s turbulent career as a bridge designer and builder. To repair the span, Roebling, who had since gained national acclaim for his railroad bridge over the Niagara River, was commissioned to rebuild the bridge at a cost of $42,000 (4).
To preserve the structure and keep it usable, the bridge would have major repairs done in 1956, 1982, and 1999. It has received numerous awards and honors including: