Bridging the century

Post staff report

How old is the Roebling Suspension Bridge?

It opened shortly after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

The first pedestrians went across the bridge on Dec. 1, 1866. The Commercial-Gazette carried just one paragraph:

'The gun squad from Newport barracks, with two, brass, 12-pounders, fired a salute at the foot of Greenup Street yesterday morning in honor of the opening of the Covington and Cincinnati bridge. The bridge was thronged with people throughout the day, fully 20,000 having crossed between sunrise and sunset.'

A month later, the bridge was opened to vehicular traffic and the commerce of the north was then merged with the commerce of the south.

At the time, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world and had been built at the cost of $1,800,000.

The Suspension Bridge opened after numerous hardships, including a worker's strike, a money shortage and a work stoppage during the Civil War. Ferryboat owners and other river merchants had said the bridge would result in economic ruin for Cincinnati.

Through it all, German-born John A. Roebling met his critics head-on, persevering to get the bridge built. He had help from Amos Shinkle, a Covington businessman who brought money and enthusiasm to the bridge project.

Since then, Roebling's handiwork has stood the test of time, needing only a few improvements from modern technology.

Enduring landmark

The Roebling Suspension Bridge was not the first suspension bridge over the Ohio River. The first one was at Wheeling, W.Va. It was completed by Charles Ellet in 1849.

It was also not the first suspension bridge in Covington. A suspension structure over the Licking River between Covington and Newport had collapsed in 1854.

The Suspension Bridge was the only highway span over the Ohio River kept open during the 1937 flood.

A toll for pedestrians and vehicles was charged until the early 1960s. When the bridge opened, a horse and buggy was charged a toll of 15 cents. Three horses and a carriage was charged 25 cents. The toll booths were manned by 'bridge tenders.'

Pedestrians were charged a penny and on Sept. 21, 1959, a grand total of $13.46 was collected.

The toll turnstiles and collection houses were run by the state of Kentucky and helped pay off Kentucky debt, but they were located on Ohio soil.

The state of Kentucky paid $4,230,000 to purchase the bridge in 1953.

In the 1950s, a second set of cables was attached to meet the needs of heavier traffic.

A group wanted to paint the bridge red, white and blue to honor the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976.

The Cincinnati-Covington Suspension Bridge Committee Inc. supplies flags, historic designations and the string of pearl lights for the span.

The center arch of the bridge rises one foot in extremely cold weather due to the contraction of the steel, and drops one foot in extremely warm weather due to the expansion of the steel.

SOURCES: Cincinnati Post archives; Cincinnati Historical Society; 'They Said It Couldn't Be Built, Centennial Year'

Man of vision

John A. Roebling was the engineer who designed and oversaw the building of the suspension bridge over the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Covington.

Roebling studied engineering at Royal Polytechnic Institute in Berlin, where his fascination with suspension bridges started.

He arrived in America in 1830 at the age of 25 from his native Germany. He felt he could more freely practice his profession in America than in tightly controlled Germany.

Roebling started out as a farmer here, and invented wire rope as a farming experiment to haul flat boats over the mountains that separated a network of canals.

He opened a wire-rope plant in Trenton, N.J., in 1848.

In a Centennial special edition of the Suspension Bridge, Roebling was described as 'having the gift of clarity of expression, a magnetic personality and a driving urge to succeed.'

In the 1840s, Roebling was in a rivalry with another bridge engineer, Charles Ellet. Ellet was more showman, but Roebling had the more solid engineering background.

Roebling also built suspension bridges in Pittsburgh and Niagara Falls; he was killed in 1869 while selecting a pier site for the Brooklyn Bridge.

His family continued the bridge-building tradition, including building the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Publication date: 03-25-99

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