Wheeling in Ohio County, West Virginia — The American South (Appalachia)
Wheeling Suspension Bridge
The Wheeling Suspension Bridge, constructed by Charles Ellet, Jr. between 1846 and 1849, was the first long-span wire-cable suspension bridge in the United States. For many years it was the longest clear-span bridge in the world. The deck was wrecked by a violent storm in 1854. It was re-built and the structure with its original towers and cables is still in service. It is the most significant remaining pre-Civil War bridge in the nation.
Erected 1971 by the West Virginia Department of Archives and History.
Topics and series. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: Bridges & Viaducts • Landmarks • Notable Buildings • Roads & Vehicles. In addition, it is included in the West Virginia Archives and History series list. A significant historical year for this entry is 1846.
Location. 40° 4.224′ N, 80° 43.475′ W. Marker Touch for map. Marker is in this post office area: Wheeling WV 26003, United States of America. Touch for directions.
Other nearby markers. At least 5 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. Old Trails Road (within shouting distance of this marker); Wheeling Suspension Bridge - 1849 (within shouting distance of this marker); a different marker also named Wheeling Suspension Bridge (within shouting distance of this marker); Robert W. Hazlett House (about 400 feet away, measured in a direct line); Slave Auction Block (about 400 feet away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Wheeling.
Also see . . .
1. West Virginia Wheeling Suspension Bridge. The National Road: A Photo Essay website entry (Submitted on September 17, 2006.)
2. Wheeling Suspension Bridge - 1975 National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History website entry:
As it stands today, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge has the general appearance of the original structure built in 1849. The massive towers, anchorage housings, and island approach are all the original stone masonry.
A 1953 report by the consulting engineers Howard,
The date of the existing stiffening truss is unknown. It is a classic Howe timber truss with cast iron joint fittings and wrought iron vertical tension rods. It is likely that this truss dates from the 1860 reconstruction since it was a popular truss form of the period and also because several Ellet-inspired suspension bridges in West Virginia built in the 1850s employed similar trusses. In any case, these trusses can hardly be any later than the strengthening of the bridge which was undertaken in 1971-2.
The auxiliary stay cables were added at the time of the 1871-2 strengthening and followed a design by Washington Roebling. This effectively “roeblingized” the bridge’s appearance although the main cables and vertical suspenders were left unaltered. Washington Roebling and Wilhelm Hildenbrand, who undertook the strengthening project, also widened the distance between the cables and placed the walkways inside the stringers. This resulted in an improved lateral stiffness.
Changes to the deck made in 1922,
In spite of these changes, the bridge’s present condition greatly resembled that described by the Wheeling City directory in 1851:
“The span is 1010 feet from the summit of the tower, leaving the entire width of the river unobstructed. The summits of the towers on the eastern, or Wheeling shore are 153½ feet above low water level on the river. Their actual height from the base of the stone work is 82 feet; abutment 22 feet, towers 60 feet. The western towers, on Zane’s Island, are 132¾ feet; the abutment is 63 feet, and the columns of the towers are 69¾ feet. The summits of the eastern towers are 21¾ feet above the western towers.
“The flooring is supported by twelve iron cables suspended from the towers, 10 large and 2 small ones. The large
“The cables are 1380 feet long from fastening to fastening. Their deflection below the top of the eastern tower is 68½ feet at a temperature of 44 degrees. The flooring is attached to the cables by wire stays ¾ of an inch in diameter, (i.e. vertical suspender rods ¾" diameter) varying in length as they approach and recede from the towers.
“The highest elevation of the flooring is immediately over the channel of the river, 212 feet from the Wheeling shore, where the top of the flooring is a fraction over 93 feet above low water. The height from low water to the bottom of the flooring i.e. the lowest projecting timer, is 91½ feet, leaving that space, subject to the fluctuations of the depth of the channel, for the passage of steamboats and other vessels beneath.
“The flooring ascends from the Wheeling side for 172½
“The strength of the bridge, as computed by Mr. Ellet, is sufficient to resist 297 tons, or 32 heavily laden road wagons. 192 horses and 500 people, a weight equal to an army of 4000 men—a greater probably weight than it will ever be required to sustain. “
Statement of Significance
It can be argued that the Wheeling Suspension Bridge is the nation's most significant extant antebellum engineering structure and that America’s preeminent position as a leader in the design and construction of long suspension bridges began with its successful completion. At the time of building and for many years thereafter, it was the longest suspension in the world. It was the first bridge to be built across the Ohio River, one of the world’s longest navigable streams, and provided a vital link in the National Road.
As a result of recent research, Charles Ellet, Jr., is emerging from obscurity and is being recognized as the father of the modern American suspension bridge and an engineer of true genius who was instrumental in proposing internal improvements in transportation, water resources, and flood control for the entire Mississippi-Ohio river system. In addition Colonel Ellet was chiefly responsible for the defeat of the Confederate Naval Forces at the Civil War battle of Memphis as a result of his construction and command of the ram fleet. A wound received during the battle was fatal and cut short his brilliant career. The Wheeling Suspension Bridge stands as a fitting tribute to him.
As early as 1816 a charter was granted to the Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company for the erection of a bridge at Wheeling, probably in anticipation of the arrival of the Cumberland Pike in 1818. Various factors combined to delay the building of this bridge, but in 1836 Ellet was in communication with Henry Moore of Wheeling
In May 1847, the directors sent invitations to both Ellet and John Roebling to present plans and cost estimates for a bridge across the east channel of the river to Wheeling Island. Their selection of these bidders indicates that they had already been influenced in favor of a suspension type of structure, doubtless for two reasons: the substantial savings in cost and freedom from pillars that could obstruct river traffic. Besides influencing the design, the directors also determined the height of the bridge—90 feet above the river. The directors have sometimes been accused of gullibility in their handling of the engineering problems of the bridge, but to their credit it must be said that they were progressive enough and shrewd enough to choose the best of the four generic types of bridges (suspension, arch, cantilever, and truss) for their purpose. They should also be commended for offering the job to one of the two men in America capable of building a span of that size.
Ellet was awarded the contract and began construction in 1847. The bridge was completed in November 1849 amid great public acclaim. While it was a thing of considerable grace and beauty, it was not sufficiently stiffened to resist the cumulative motions resulting from the buffeting of high winds. On May 17, 1854, the structure was subjected to torsional movements and vertical undulations that tossed the flooring almost to the height of the towers. Except for some of the cables, the entire structure collapsed into the river. The bridge company, as indicated by its minutes and by newspaper accounts, summoned Ellet (not John Roebling, as an early biography has it) to rebuild the bridge temporarily and draw up a long-range plan for its reconstruction. Timidly, the directors suggested that Ellet might want to place a pier in the middle of the river. He did not follow their suggestion, but, with the help of Captain William K. McComas, superintendent, had a 14' wide version of the bridge functioning again on a one-way traffic basis within three months. This span was used until the summer of 1859 when McComas, now engineer as well as superintendent, rebuilt the bridge at a cost
In a 1933 history of the bridge, T.R. Lawson, dean of RPI, states that McComas increased the number of wires of the bridge by a third, but reduced the number of cables from 12 to 4 (which were approximately 7¼" in diameter and were wrapped with No. 14 wire). During this 1859 rebuilding, McComas also added guy wires above and below the bridge on both river banks and placed wind guys at points along the platform. However, he placed the walks in an awkward position outside the suspenders. He was able to open his version of the bridge to traffic on a limited basis on July 20, 1860, and to all traffic on August 1, 1860.
A direct Roebling touch came in 1871 and 1872. Under a plan drawn up by Washington Roebling, Wilhelm Hildenbrand, engineer for the Roebling Company, and Joseph Lawson, superintendent, moved the cables farther apart and placed the sidewalks inside the suspenders. They also added a system of wire stays invented by Roebling. In 1886, Hildenbrand again (Submitted on April 13, 2013, by Allen C. Browne of Silver Spring, Maryland.)
Credits. This page was last revised on February 1, 2022. It was originally submitted on September 17, 2006, by J. J. Prats of Powell, Ohio. This page has been viewed 16,673 times since then and 316 times this year. Photos: 1, 2, 3. submitted on September 17, 2006, by J. J. Prats of Powell, Ohio. 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. submitted on April 10, 2013, by Allen C. Browne of Silver Spring, Maryland.