Big Four Bridge

The Big Four Bridge carries a pedestrian and cycling path over the Ohio River between Louisville, Kentucky and Jeffersonville, Indiana. After years of being abandoned, the former railroad bridge was rehabilitated for non-vehicular use.

The Big Four Bridge was initially conceived in 1885 by Jeffersonville city leaders. In 1887, the Louisville & Jeffersonville Bridge Company was formed after a charter by the state of Indiana was issued; Kentucky issued a charter a year later.2 The location was approved by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, despite protests from the riverboat industry.

Construction of a single track railroad bridge began on October 10, 1888.2 During construction, 37 workers perished. Twelve died while working on a pier foundation. A caisson that held back water from the river failed, drowning the workers. Another four died several months later when a wooden beam broke while working on a different pier caisson. Another – one of the largest bridge disasters in the United States at the time, occurred on December 15, 1893 when a construction crane became dislodged in strong winds. The falsework support of a truss was damaged and the truss, with 41 workers on it, collapsed into the Ohio River. Twenty of the workers survived but 21 died.

The new Ohio River crossing was completed in September 1895 at a cost of $3.5 million, but because of the accidents, the Louisville & Jeffersonville Bridge Company was financially unstable.2 The company was sold to the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway (Big Four), giving the company its first entry into Louisville.

The first interurban crossed the Big Four Bridge on September 12, 1905.3 4 5 The only major accident to occur with the interurban service was in January 1918, when two interurbans collided head-on, killing three and injuring 20.

Due to the increasing size of railroad cars and engines, a contract was let in June 1928 for a larger Big Four Bridge.2 The new bridge was constructed on the piers of the old span in order to expedite construction. During work, the Big Four was rerouted over the Kentucky & Indiana Terminal Bridge while interurban service was routed over buses. Rebuilding efforts were complete on June 25, 1929.

In 1906, the Big Four was acquired by the New York Central Railroad (NYC), which operated it as a separate entity until 1930. The NYC merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad to form Penn Central in 1968. At that time, all traffic on the Big Four was diverted to the Fourteenth Street Bridge to save on operating and maintenance costs and in 1969, the approach spans were sold for scrap.2 4 The Big Four Bridge became known as the “Bridge That Goes Nowhere.”

In 1988, Oscar Arias, President of Costa Rica, contacted the city of Louisville to inquire about purchasing the abandoned bridge for dismantling and reassembling in Costa Rica.6 As the city did not own the bridge, the proposal to move the structure elsewhere did not go through.

After several lawsuits that were designed to halt the project, the Big Four Bridge was rehabilitated into a pedestrian and cycling bridge as part of the Louisville Waterfront Park.7 8 9 Proposed since the 1990’s, the project picked up political steam when the Indiana Department of Transportation pledged $1 million to build the Indiana approach to the bridge while the city of Jeffersonville pledged $200,000 towards a proposed $2.8 million cost. The Kentucky ramp was projected at $4 million while the renovation of the main spans was proposed at $3 million.

Work to rehabilitate the Big Four Bridge began in mid-July 2009 and by February 2013, pedestrians were allowed to access the Big Four Bridge from Louisville; the Indiana ramp had not yet been finished. The Jeffersonville connection opened on May 20, 2014.1

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