A Quick History of the Roebling Suspension Bridge

The suspension bridge between Covington, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio opened to traffic on January 1, 1867. Its central span of 1057 feet was the longest in the world. John A. Roebling had spent most of the previous two years in New York and at his home in New Jersey vigorously planning for his next proposed project – a bridge over the East River connecting New York City and Brooklyn. The work at Covington had been under the supervision of his son, Washington, since early in 1865.

The first charter for the Ohio River bridge had been granted to the Covington-Cincinnati Bridge Company by the Kentucky Legislature in 1846. Due to opposition chiefly from ferryboat operators and steamboat companies, the Ohio legislature delayed approval. There was also concern that the bridge would possibly facilitate the movement of Negroes attempting to escape slavery.

The Bridge Company had selected John Roebling as chief engineer to design and build the bridge. Construction began in September 1856. The initial work was to prepare the foundations for the Ohio tower. With both towers under construction, work halted in 1858 as additional funding became unavailable after a widespread financial downturn in 1857.

The bridge project sat idle as the bridge company had difficulty selling stock and the nation moved toward civil war.

The war began in the spring of 1861, and by September of 1862, Confederate forces under General Kirby Smith invaded Kentucky and threatened to move on Cincinnati. Union General Lew Wallace organized the defense of the city, and built a series of fortifications on the hills in northern Kentucky. A pontoon bridge using coal barges was assembled across the Ohio River to expedite the movement of troops and supplies. Some old engravings showing this floating bridge also depict the stubs of the suspension bridge towers jutting out of the river.

This threat renewed interest in the bridge. Additional stock was sold and by the spring of 1863, the state legislatures had amended their charters to reduce the required clearance of the bridge over the river. John Roebling returned to Covington to restart construction. Work on the towers resumed as excavation began for the anchorages.

The project continued through 1864, and early the following year, Washington Roebling joined his father as assistant chief engineer. He had recently married after his discharge from the Union army where he had risen to the rank of colonel.

Spinning of the cables began in November 1865 using wrought iron wire imported from England. John Roebling returned to the east coast, and supervision of the Ohio River bridge project was turned over to Washington. The cables were completed in June 1866, and installation of the hangers, beams, wood floor, and diagonal stays proceeded with only minimal delays.

As a member of the Board since 1856, Amos Shinkle had always been among the staunchest supporters of the bridge project. He was elected President of the Bridge Company in March 1866, a position he continued to hold until his death in 1892.

The bridge was opened to pedestrian traffic on the first weekend of December, 1866. The opening was signaled with a one-hundred-volley salute by two cannons from the Newport Barracks. It was reported that 46,000 people crossed the bridge on Saturday, and 120,000 on Sunday.

The formal opening of the bridge was on January 1, 1867. The date was earlier than planned because ice on the river had prevented ferryboat operations. Completion of final details, including painting, extended until late June 1867, under Washington Roebling’s direction. The color of the paint has been described as “Spanish Brown”. John Roebling reported the total cost of the bridge as 1.8 million dollars.

John Roebling was appointed Chief Engineer of the New York Bridge Company later in 1867. Wilhelm Hildenbrand was hired as a draftsman to prepare detailed drawings. He also provided illustrations to promote the “East River”, or “Brooklyn” bridge. Meanwhile, Washington Roebling was touring bridge projects and reviewing the latest construction methods in Europe.

In June1869, John Roebling’s foot was crushed on the Fulton Ferry slip in Brooklyn while surveying the centerline for the proposed bridge. Twenty-four days later, he died of lockjaw at age 63. The following month, Washington Roebling was appointed to succeed his father as chief engineer on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Construction began on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1870. Although stricken with caisson disease in 1872 – which made him a partial invalid – Washington was able to overcome many difficulties to complete the bridge in 1883. With a central span of 1595 feet, it became the world’s longest bridge, surpassing its forerunner at Cincinnati.

There was record flooding on the Ohio River in 1883, and the following year was even worse with water here reaching the 71-foot level. The Ohio approach to the bridge then ended at Front Street and it was under water. The bridge company provided skiffs to transport pedestrians between the bridge and a point on Walnut Street.

In 1891, moisture problems were discovered in the southeast anchorage. Local Civil Engineer Gustave Bouscaren was consulted and he devised reinforcing collars with friction clamps to restore the strength of the cables.

With electric streetcars replacing horse-drawn cars, there was concern about the load capacity of the bridge. In 1894, six engineers were asked to inspect the structure and submit proposals. All, but Wilhelm Hildenbrand, suggested replacing the bridge with a non-suspension structure.

With Washington Roebling’s help and advice, Hildenbrand received the contract and began reconstruction in 1895. His plan included adding two steel cables, which required four new anchors, and removal of the turrets to position additional saddles on the towers. Hildenbrand installed a new steel truss and floor beam system, and widened the wooden floor. The Ohio approach was extended to Second Street. The reconstruction was completed in 1899. Electric lighting was installed on the bridge in 1901.

A flood in 1913 put the extended Ohio approach under water, and a temporary wooden trestle was built to maintain traffic to Walnut Street. This resulted in the Bridge Company developing plans and acquiring additional property to continue the approach to Third Street. This extension was completed in 1918. A later modification of the approach permitted streetcar ramps over Third Street to connect to the Dixie Terminal.

During the great flood of 1937, the river crested at 79.99 feet. It was necessary to construct a sandbag, gravel, and timber causeway in Covington to connect diagonally from the bridge approach to a point on Greenup Street. The bridge was the only highway river crossing between Steubenville, Ohio and Cairo, Illinois that remained open — a distance of over 800 miles.

The Commonwealth of Kentucky purchased the bridge from the bridge company in 1953. Improvements by Kentucky included installation of a steel-grid deck to replace the wooden floor. Toll collection continued until late in 1963.

The 100th anniversary of the bridge opening was celebrated with a ceremony on Court Street at the Covington approach in the fall of 1966.

The bridge was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1975. An advocate for small businesses, Ed Wimmer, Sr., cited the construction of the bridge as a prime example of the free enterprise system. Mr. Wimmer founded the Covington-Cincinnati Suspension Bridge Committee (CCSBC), and urged the state to paint the bridge red, white, and blue in honor of the Nation’s bicentennial. The bridge was green at that time, and the decision was made to paint it blue.

At the time of the Bicentennial, the CCSBC obtained permission to begin flying flags on a continual basis from the poles atop the bridge towers. The Bennington Flag, with thirteen stars and a ’76 in the field, is flown over the Kentucky tower, and the fifty-star flag over the Ohio tower. The appropriate state flag is flown beneath the American flags.

The bridge was designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1982. In June of the following year, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet officially renamed the structure as the “John A. Roebling Bridge”.

In 1984, the CCSBC was successful in raising funds to install the decorative cable lighting. The lighting system is a memorial to Julia Langsam, a president of the CCSBC, who worked tirelessly to see this vision become a reality.

A “yoke” roadway system connects the bridge approach in Covington to Scott and Greenup Streets. It was completed in 1991; the project included lowering Second Street to go under the approach.

The Commonwealth of Kentucky undertook a massive renovation of the bridge itself as we moved into the final decade of the twentieth century. In addition to needed structural repairs and vastly improved roofing for the anchor houses, the renovation included adding modified replicas of the original turrets (saddle houses) atop the towers. The CCSBC suggested that the turret finials should be gold-leafed, and this was done. The total cost of this renovation exceeded ten million dollars.

A final phase to paint the bridge was funded and accomplished in 2010. This cleaning and painting project, which included taking all portions of the trusses and cables down to “bare metal”, cost an additional 16.24 million dollars. A major portion of this expense was to encapsulate the work area to prevent lead paint and other impurities from contaminating the air and the river. The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet had a special acrylic paint formulated to match the desired color of the bridge. This shade is now known as ” Roebling Blue”.

An annual inspection of the bridge in 2007 determined the need to reduce the weight limit to eleven tons. This was necessary based on its condition and to preserve the structure for years to come. The Southbank Shuttle vehicles are now the heaviest permitted on the bridge.

Reconstruction of the Fort Washington Way segment of I-71, and the resulting development of The Banks, has again altered the Ohio approach to the bridge. It now begins at a tight traffic circle at the intersection with Ted Berry Way.

The CCSBC has labored for years to raise funds and develop the enhanced decorative lighting system now installed. Celebrating nearly 150 years of service as a river crossing, the John A. Roebling Bridge now serves as the iconic symbol of the entire Tri-State Region.

— Ralph G. Wolff
2004 (Updated 2016)

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