I recently set out on a day-long photographic expedition, focusing on capturing the beauty and engineering marvels of several notable bridges along the Licking River in northern Kentucky. This region, rich in history and natural beauty, is home to an array of bridges, each with its own unique story and architectural charm.
On a clear autumn morning, I embarked on an early flight over Lair, Kentucky, offering a unique aerial view of the long-abandoned Old Lewis Hunter Distillery nestled along the South Fork Licking River. My attention was also drawn to the ongoing replacement of the Old Lair Bridge. This steel girder structure, now being replaced, had become structurally deficient over time. It served as a successor to an earlier covered bridge, which itself had been replaced due to structural concerns decades ago. The cyclical nature of these replacements highlights the constant evolution and maintenance required in bridge engineering to ensure safety and functionality.
Continuing my journey northward to Butler, I set out to photograph a three-span Parker through truss bridge that crosses the Licking River.
The site’s original bridge, constructed in 1872, was known for its covered design and impressive size. This structure spanned 513 feet and included three sets of heavy timber arches, earning it the distinction of being the longest-covered bridge in the United States at the time. By 1926, it had become part of US Route 27. In an effort to reduce its weight by 50 tons, the bridge’s covering was removed in November 1934. This decision, however, led to the bridge’s rapid deterioration, and by July 1936, it was deemed unsafe for truck traffic. The state responded by placing guards at both ends of the bridge to limit its use to one car at a time and to restrict truck access.
In response to these safety concerns, a contract for a new bridge was awarded in September. The resulting structure, named the American Legion Memorial Bridge, was officially opened in October 1937. A significant change in the area’s infrastructure came in 1948 with the completion of a bypass around Butler. This development led to the re-designation of the former route through the town, initially as KY Route 609 and later as KY Route 177.
Situated between Covington and Wilder are two adjacent truss bridges, one of which has consistently sparked my interest.
The bridge located to the south has had its approach spans removed over the years, leaving only its main span standing over the Licking River. This bridge was built in 1917 by the city of Covington to support a 24-inch water main connecting Covington and Latonia. Its purpose was to act as a supplementary line to an existing 30-inch main, which was suffering from leaks due to the vibrations caused by heavy trains on the nearby Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Bridge.
By the 1970s, this bridge, known as the Covington Waterworks Bridge, had been abandoned, leading to the dismantling of its approach spans.
Adjacent to this is a conventional Warren through truss. This bridge was originally used by the Louisville & Nashville Railroad and is currently utilized by CSX Transportation trains.
The first bridge to cross the Licking River in this location was built in 1872 as part of the Louisville, Cincinnati & Lexington Railroad (LC&L) expansion through Covington and Newport. This bridge marked the first railroad connection between Cincinnati and northern Kentucky across the Ohio River. Before this, the Cincinnati & Lexington Railroad terminated in Covington and relied on a ferry service to transport railroad cars across the river to Cincinnati.
In 1904, the LC&L was acquired by the Louisville & Nashville Railroad (L&N), which was colloquially known as the “Short Line.”
During the 1920s, the L&N initiated a program to upgrade several of its bridges to accommodate heavier locomotives and trains. The reconstruction of the bridge over the Licking River was approved in December 1924 to facilitate the movement of heavier locomotives between its DeCoursey Yard and Cincinnati, Ohio. Construction began in February 1925 and was completed within that year.
Downstream, there’s another bridge currently used by CSX Transportation, which previously served the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad (C&O). The initial bridge at this location was completed in 1888 by the Covington Short Route Transfer Railway, and this line was subsequently leased to the C&O for its Ohio River Division. By 1904, the route was officially integrated into the C&O network.
In the 1920s, the C&O undertook a significant reconstruction of this line to support heavier locomotives, particularly the T-1 2-10-4 type, and to enhance traffic capacity. As part of this upgrade, the Licking River bridge was rebuilt between 1921 and 1922. Additionally, the deck truss viaduct approach in Newport underwent reconstruction in 1928. This was done in preparation for the construction of a new Ohio River bridge and a new passenger terminal in Cincinnati.
The 4th Street Bridge, the last span over the Licking River, connects Covington and Newport and has a rich history dating back to 1830. Initially conceived by the Kentucky General Assembly, the project’s early attempts, led by prominent local figures, were stalled due to financial limitations. The idea regained traction after the success of similar bridges in Cincinnati and Pennsylvania, leading to the formation of a new company in 1844. However, this effort too faced financial hurdles.
In 1852, the Newport & Covington Suspension Bridge Company took over, launching the construction of a wire suspension bridge based on designs by Charles Ellet. The bridge opened in December 1853 but encountered a setback a month later when a structural failure caused the main span to collapse. Repairs were completed, and the bridge reopened in May 1854. Over the years, despite various enhancements, the bridge’s condition necessitated significant repairs or replacement.
In 1933, it was decided that the bridge would be replaced, funded by state highway resources. The original bridge closed in October 1934, and construction of the new bridge commenced in 1935. This replacement, known as the World War Veterans Memorial Bridge, was inaugurated on July 23, 1936. It measures 1,002 feet in total length, with a main span of 252 feet, two auxiliary spans of 128 feet each, and various approach spans.
By the 21st century, the bridge was deemed functionally obsolete due to its inability to meet modern vehicle size, weight, and traffic requirements. The sidewalks were too narrow for ADA compliance, and the structure was beyond its intended lifespan, leading to a weight limit imposition. To address these challenges, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet began public consultations in 2021 to discuss the design and construction of a new 4th Street Bridge, presenting four design alternatives, all featuring four traffic lanes and dual-use paths for pedestrians and cyclists.
My expedition along the Licking River in northern Kentucky was more than a quest to document the architectural and engineering wonders of the bridges. It was an endeavor to delve into and narrate the rich history and accomplishments of the region. Each bridge I captured through my camera lens had its own distinct narrative. This exploration served as a reminder that these bridges are more than mere functional structures. They are essential, yet frequently overlooked, elements that intricately weave into our landscapes and communities, holding stories and significance often forgotten.