The Big Four Railroad Bridge spans the Ohio River between Louisville, Kentucky and Jeffersonville, Indiana, and is a former railroad truss bridge that is now a converted pedestrian and bicycle crossing. The bridge once carried the former Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway, also referred to as the “Big Four Railroad.” (1)
The 2,525-foot span contains six trusses,(1) the northernmost of which is a riveted, eight-panel Parker through-truss.(2) The next three spans to the south are 547 feet in length and are riveted, sixteen-panel Pennsylvania through-trusses, while the southernmost two spans are riveted, 10-panel Parker through-trusses.
The Big Four Railroad Bridge was first envisioned in 1885, when Jeffersonville desired a fixed railroad connection to Louisville across the Ohio River.(3)(18) The Louisville and Jeffersonville Bridge Company was formed in 1887 and obtained a charter by the state of Indiana in that year and one from Kentucky in the following year.
The first order of business by the company was to secure a location, which caused tension with the riverboat industry who had centered their operations along the banks of the river just east of downtown.(3)(18) The companies requested the span be built further upstream from the Falls of the Ohio, but the Army Corps of Engineers sided with the bridge company and approved the location.
Construction on the bridge began on October 10, 1888 and during the construction process, 37 workers died.(3) Twelve drowned while working on a pier foundation due to a caisson failure and another four drowned a few months after due to another caisson failure. But the biggest disaster came on December 15, 1893 when a construction crane became dislodged by a strong wind, causing the falsework support of a truss to become damaged. The truss, with 41 workers on the span, collapsed into an icy Ohio River. While 20 workers survived, 21 drowned. More lives were spared by the timing of an adjacent ferry, who had barely missed hitting the workers floundering in the waters. Another truss fell a few hours later, but no workers were on the span when that occurred.
Falsework thereafter was longitudinally reinforced to prevent other occurrences and to prevent strong winds from causing similar damage.(3)
The bridge was completed in September 1895 (4) at a cost of $2.5 million (19) with no further incidents.(4) But because of the accidents, the Louisville and Jeffersonville Bridge Company was forced into receivership and was sold to the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway. The acquisition allowed the railroad to disregard the issue of trackage rights, as it had desired to enter Louisville regardless of the receivership.(3)
The Big Four Bridge allowed freight traffic to dramatically increase in Louisville. On September 12, 1905,(5)(6)(7) high-speed interurbans began using the span. The only major incident to occur on the bridge happened in January 1918, when two interurbans collided, killing 3 and injuring 20.
Due to bigger and larger trains, not only in size but in weight, contracts were let in 1912 to rebuild the approaches.(19) Another project was let in June 1928 to build stronger main spans.(3) The new components, constructed by the Louisville & Jefferson Bridge Company,(17) was erected on the piers of the old bridge while leaving the existing span intact. All rail traffic was diverted to the Kentucky & Indiana Terminal Bridge, while the interurbans were replaced by buses during the duration of the work. The work cost $3.5 million.(20)
In 1968, the Big Four Railroad’s parent company, the New York Central, merged into Penn Central. Penn Central did not have the financial resources to maintain the crossing and it fell into disrepair.(3)(6) Traffic was rerouted to the Ohio River Falls Bridge in 1969, and in 1974, the Big Four Bridge’s approaches were removed and sold for scrap.(3)(6)(10)(19)
Railroad enthusiast Charles Hammond purchased the bridge in 1982, and proposed developing the bridge with condos and retail stores.(19) But when Hammond drowned in a sea of back taxes, the crossing was sold at a sheriff’s auction in 1987 to Bridge the Gap charity for $10,000. The charity lit the bridge every Christmas holiday for a toy drive promotion.
Rail to Trail
The Big Four Bridge’s status until 2006 was not clear. Kentucky highway officials discussed purchasing the bridge from the railroad in the 1950s for conversion into a two-lane highway bridge, but the railroad was not interested in selling it.(19) A proposal in 1988 by Costa Rica to the city of Louisville called for the outright dismantling of the bridge and reassembly in Costa Rica. The idea was never realized as the city did not own the bridge.(8)(19)
The conversion of the Big Four Bridge into a walkway was first proposed in 1991 as part of the 85-acre Waterfront Park’s master plan, planned by landscape architect and designer George Hargreaves.(19)
In 2006, after some litigation, construction began on a project to convert the Big Four Bridge into a rail to trail as part of the Waterfront Park development. Designed by Hargreaves & Associates, the conversion was anticipated as part of the 13-acre final phase.(13)(14) An earthen mound would form the beginning of an elliptical spiral ramp that would soar 60 feet into the air to meet the approach of the Big Four Bridge, although this was revised in favor of a circular Corten steel ramp due to soil stability issues.(15) A 60-foot viewing platform was proposed at the top of the ramp. The ramp was projected to cost $6.5 million.(16) Construction was completed in 2010 at a cost of $6.8 million.(17)(18)
The bridge deck caught fire in May 2008 after an inspection due to faulty wiring on a light fixture.(13) While the crossties and wooden walkway was damaged, the bridge structure itself remained unharmed.
In November, Jeffersonville officials announced that they were close to selecting a design for their approach to the bridge.(9) Eight engineering firms submitted proposals, with a projected cost of $5 million. In June 2009, Kentucky appropriated $12 million for a new bridge deck, guardrails and lighting on the main spans.(10)(12)(17)
A rendering of the Indiana approach ramp was unveiled at a Jeffersonville Board of Public Works and Safety meeting on June 9, 2010, which prompted a discussion of aesthetic treatment options. The Rose Hill Neighborhood Association, for instance, requested park benches and light posts with banners.(11) For the alignment, the city favored an approach that went over the floodwall and landed on Chestnut Street, between Mulberry and Pearl streets (10) in a park-like setting.(11)
The construction documents for the Indiana approach were completed in November, and included a revised construction estimate of $6 million to $8 million.(10) Half of the right-of-way required had been acquired at this point.(12)
In July 2011, T&C Contracting of Louisville began on the main span bridge deck.(10)(12)(17)(21) A large crane, operated on a temporary plywood deck with a steel frame on the bottom for support, removed 10,000 railroad ties and lifted approximately 150 steel “stringer” beams, each 33-feet long and weighing 1.5 tons, onto the bridge deck. Afterwards, 326 precast concrete panels, each 22-feet wide and 8-feet long, were placed on top of the beams to form the permanent deck. A two-inch layer of concrete was added on top of the panels for a smooth finish.
The spiral approach ramp in Louisville’s Waterfront Park was opened for just one day on July 6 for a groundbreaking ceremony.(17) The event included Governor Beshear, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, U.S. Representative Yarmuth and Jeffersonville, Indiana Mayor Galligan, along with 200 other cyclists and walkers.
To make way for a park and the base of the Indiana approach to the Big Four Bridge, work began to move the Rueben Wells house in Jeffersonville one block south on November 15.(20) The 150-year-old brick home was moved down Mulberry Street to its new home at 227 West Market Street. The Wells house was home to a master mechanic for the Jeffersonville, Madison and Indianapolis Railroad Company and the designer for a steam locomotive that was able to climb steep hills.
Construction on the Indiana approach began in March 2012.(22) A $6.5 million contract was awarded to Gohmann Asphalt and Construction Company a month prior.
The main spans of the Big Four Bridge opened to pedestrians and cyclists on February 7, 2013.(19) A brief ceremony was held that morning. Up to the point of opening, nearly $20 million had been spent on the project, including:
- Nearly $1 million for the acquisition for three tracks of land under the bridge on the Kentucky shore.
- $350,000 from city funds to bridge owner Bridge the Gap charity, after the city acquired the title to the bridge through condemnation.
- $6.8 million in private funding for the Kentucky approach.
- $12 million appropriated by the Kentucky legislature for the main span construction.
- Designation: Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway / Big Four Bridge
- Crosses: Ohio River
- Total Length: 2,525 feet
- Main Span Length: 547 feet
- Total length: 2,525 feet
- Height: 53 feet
- Longest, David E. Railroad Depots of Southern Indiana. N.p.: Arcadia, 2005. N. pag. Print.
- “Big Four Railroad Bridge.” Bridge Hunter. N.p., 2010. Web. 18 Nov. 2010. Article.
- Kleber, John E. Encyclopedia of Louisville. N.p.: University Press of Kentucky, 2000. 89. Print.
- Nold, Chip, et al. The Insiders’ Guide to Louisville, Ky & Southern Indiana. Manteo: Insiders’, 1997. 30. Print.
- Haffner, Gerald O. An Informal History of Clark County, Indiana. N.p.: Whipporwill , 1985. 111. Print.
- Heim, Michael. Exploring Indiana Highways: Trip Trivia. Wabasha: T.O.N.E., 2007. 141. Print.
- “Places to See.” Visit Southern Indiana. Clark-Floyd Department of Tourism, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2010. Article.
- McDonough, Rick. “Costa Rican may want to buy Big Four Bridge, move it south.” Courier-Journal [Louisville] 30 June 1988: 1B. Print.
- “Jeffersonville bridge project close to decision.” News and Tribune [Jeffersonville] 20 Nov. 2008. 18 Nov. 2010. Article.
- Mann, David A. “Big Four Bridge plans nearing completion, but funding still an obstacle.” News and Tribune [Jeffersonville] 13 Sept. 2010. 18 Nov. 2010. Article.
- Lammers, Braden. “Big Four ramp plans move ahead.” News and Tribune [Jeffersonville] 10 June 2010. 18 Nov. 2010. Article.
- Lammers, Braden. “Big Four funding in a state of flux.” News and Tribune [Jeffersonville] 5 June 2010. 18 Nov. 2010. Article.
- “Big Four Bridge Proposal By Studio Arne Quinze.” Broken Sidewalk. N.p., 26 Sept. 2008. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. Article.
- “Wasteland No More: The Greening Of Waterfront Park (Phase III).” Broken Sidewalk. N.p., 13 Oct. 2008. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. Article.
- Klayko, Branden. “Ramping Up Construction At The Big Four Bridge.” Broken Sidewalk. N.p., 30 Oct. 2009. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. Article.
- “Revival of Big 4 railroad bridge in progress, Sky11 has the overhead view.” WHAS. N.p., 15 Aug. 2009. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. Article.
- Teo, Bertrand. “Big Four ramp opens for a day.” Courier-Journal [Louisville]. 6 July 2011. Web. 21 July 2011. Article.
- Francis, Bill. “Big 4 Bridge restoration.” WDRB. N.p., 5 July 2011. Web. 21 July 2011. Article.
- Shafer, Sheldon S. “After two decades of expectation, Big Four pedestrian and bike pathway opening over Ohio River.” Courier-Journal [Louisville] 7 Feb. 2013. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
- “Jeffersonville home set on wheels to make way for Big Four park.” Courier-Journal [Louisville] 15 Nov. 2012. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
- Shafer, Sheldon S. “Big Four Bridge deck is well under way.” Courier-Journal [Louisville] 5 May 2012. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
- Hershberg, Ben Zion. “Work starts on Jeffersonville ramp to Big Four Bridge.” Courier-Journal [Louisville] 29 Mar. 2012. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.