The John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge connects Covington, Kentucky to Cincinnati, Ohio crossing the Ohio River.

Planning and Construction

The Roebling Suspension Bridge, first proposed in an 1849 charter issued by the state of Ohio as a connection between Cincinnati, then one of the largest cities in the United States, and northern Kentucky, a collective of burgeoning cities, the proposed Cincinnati-Covington Bridge was required to have no piers in the river, a total main span length of 1,400 ft., and a deck clearance of 112 ft.(1) John A. Roebling proposed a suspension bridge that would rival that of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge.

But while many Covington residents advocated for a bridge to connect to the more industrious north, going as far as to align their street grid to match Cincinnati’s in 1815, Cincinnati wanted nothing to do with the span.(20) Others feared the bridge would ruin commerce along the river, while some wondered if slaves would use the bridge to escape the south. Most of these unfounded fears came from the Cincinnati banks.

Adding to the skepticism of the proposed bridge was the collapse of two smaller suspension spans, both of which were not designed by Roebling.(20) One of the collapsed bridges was one that was hastily built between Covington and Newport across the Licking River. Another rationale against the construction was the recession of 1857, along with the Civil War and pier construction problems.

Construction on the suspension bridge did not begin until fall 1856,(2) and by that point, the length of the span was reduced to 1,000 ft. and the deck clearance was lowered to 100 ft.(1) It took a decade to complete the bridge due to periodic interruptions from the Civil War and financial difficulties. In addition, a pier near the Ohio shore posed problems that required months to repair.(20) Opened to pedestrians on December 1, 1866,(1)(2) the 1,057 ft. Ohio River crossing was the longest in the world. It also boasted 281 ft. side spans, a 341 ft. approach ramp in Cincinnati, a 292 ft. approach ramp in Covington, and massive, masonry towers of 75 feet in height. The tan-colored span opened to all other traffic in January with a toll.

The design of the bridge was used as a model for Roebling’s next project, the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.

In 1896, the bridge was painted a light blue color,(10) and rebuilt three years later due to concerns over the inadequacy of the deck truss and the usage of inferior iron and oak deck plankings that was a result of inflation after the Civil War that would have otherwise made the construction project infeasible.(3) The project was undertaken under the direction of Wilhelm Hildenbrand.

In 1963, the toll booths were removed in conjunction with the opening of the Interstate 71 and Interstate 75 Brent Spence Bridge.(10) The span was closed for extensive repairs six years later.

Preservation

In the early 1980s, the Covington-Cincinnati Suspension Bridge Committee was formed to preserve and enhance the crossing with private financing.(6) In 1984, the group funded its first project, installing “necklace” lighting to accentuate the cables at a cost of $220,000. They also restored the bridge’s spires and painted them with gold leaf at a cost of $60,000, which the state of Kentucky later absorbed. In addition, the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge was renamed after Roebling, the original designer of the span.(1)

In 1996, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) completed $10 million worth of repairs to the Roebling Bridge, in an effort to restore the service life on the span.(8) Two years later, the KYTC was set to repaint the Roebling Bridge after its last painting eighteen years prior under a $6 million contract.(4) The light blue color was beginning to rust and look unsightly, however, work never commenced due to construction relating to Ohio’s Fort Washington Way project. In 2001, the Covington City Commission adopted a resolution to have the bridge painted “Kentucky Wildcat blue,” although others lobbied for a light brown or Spanish brown color. An unscientific survey of bridge walkers in 2002 found that verdigris, a shade of green that is tinted to blue, was favored. The KYTC found that the sandstone-tan color was more historic.(5)

In 2005, the KYTC allocated $7 million towards the repainting of the span, and commenced on a $1.2 million project to repair the sidewalks and do structural improvements to the bridge.(5) In October, the KYTC stated that the color of the repainted span would not be a deep University of Kentucky blue, but more of a milder hue or green.(7)

The Roebling Bridge was closed for extensive structural and electrical repairs for an estimated five-and-one-half months beginning on November 17, 2006 at a cost of $3.1 million,(11), up from an original estimate of 2.83 million.(8) Work included replacing suspension rods, floor beams, asphalt sidewalks and writing.(9) A provision was made to re-paint the bridge, although this did not occur.

The span re-opened to traffic in the end of March 2007, nearly one month ahead of schedule,(12) although there was a push by the Covington City Council to ban buses operated by Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK) from using the Roebling Bridge.(13) The city of Covington requested that the current weight limit of 22 tons be reduced due to damage the buses were causing to the 135-year-old crossing. The KYTC, working with the University of Kentucky College of Engineering, performed a structural study of the bridge to determine an acceptable weight limit.(14)

TANK, in response, noted that 19 of the bus system’s 26 routes cross the Roebling to downtown Cincinnati, and that using alternate routes would add at least $400,000 in costs to TANK’s operating cost every year.(13) On September 11, 2007, the KYTC reduced the weight limit on the bridge to 11 tons.(15)

Repainting of the bridge was scheduled to begin in April 2007, although this was pushed up to April 2008.(16) In February 2008, the KYTC announced that no funding had been allocated for the painting of the Roebling and that the project was delayed by two years. In April, the Covington-Cincinnati Suspension Bridge Committee announced that it was beginning a fundraising drive of $350,000 to install new electric lines and light fixtures to replace those that date to 1984.(17) The lighting system was antiquated and frequently shorted out due to its age. On January 11, 2009, the The Committee proposed using multi-color, energy-efficient light-emitting diodes (LED), and raised its fundraising drive to $450,000 in preparation.(18)

The Committee soon backed down from the multi-color effect after meeting resistance from the Army Corps of Engineers, who stated that the multi-color LEDs would be a navigational hazard to freight traffic along the Ohio River that depend on red and green hues to navigate the waterway safely.(19) The Committee instead stated that they would stick to using white hued LED lights. The obsolete lights were turned off on April 1, 2009 in anticipation of the bridge painting project.(18)

Statistics

  • Designation: John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge
  • Crosses: Ohio River
  • Bridge type: Suspension
  • Total length: 1,057 ft.
  • Number of lanes: 2
Further Reading
  1. Roebling Suspension Bridge at Cincinnati Transit
  2. Roebling Suspension Bridge at iCivil Engineer
  3. Roebling Suspension Bridge at Invention Factory
  4. Roebling Suspension Bridge at A Span for All Seasons
  5. Roebling Suspension Bridge at Structurae
Sources
  1. Mecklenborg, Jake. “John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge.” Cincinnati Transit. 6 May 2009 Article.
  2. “The Cincinnati-Covington Bridge.” Invention Factory 2002. 6 May 2009 Article.
  3. “Cincinnati-Covington Bridge.” Structurae. 6 May 2009 Article.
  4. Schroeder, Cindy. “Bridge rusts amid debate over color.” Enquirer (Cincinnati) 18 June 2004. 6 May 2009.
  5. Rutledge, Mike. “Is UK blue OK hue for Roebling?” Enquirer (Cincinnati) 26 March 2005. 6 May 2009.
  6. Driehaus, Bob. “River Rainbow.” Kentucky Post 14 May 2004. 6 May 2009.
  7. Rutledge, Mike. “UK blue unlikely for bridge.” Enquirer (Cincinnati) 23 Oct. 2005. 6 May 2009.
  8. Paeth, Greg. “Bridge to close for repairs.” Kentucky Post 28 March 2006. 6 May 2009.
  9. Wartman, Scott. “Suspension bridge to close.” Enquirer (Cincinnati) 29 March 2006. 6 May 2009.
  10. Schroeder, Cindy. “Keep bridge walkways open, Ky. urged.” Enquirer (Cincinnati) 13 April 2006. 6 May 2009.
  11. Schroeder, Cindy. “Suspension bridge to close.” Enquirer (Cincinnati) 2 Nov. 2006. 6 May 2009.
  12. Schroeder, Cindy. “Bridge will reopen soon.” Enquirer (Cincinnati) 16 March 2007. 6 May 2009.
  13. Saladin, Luke E. “Ban of buses on bridge surprises TANK.” Cincinnati Post 17 March 2007. 7 May 2009.
  14. Saladin, Luke E. “Rolling on the river.” Cincinnati Post 24 March 2007. 7 May 2009.
  15. McGurk, Margaret A. “Buses banned on Roebling.” Enquirer (Cincinnati) 11 Sept. 2007. 7 May 2009.
  16. Schroeder, Cindy. “Bridge painting is delayed.” Enquirer (Cincinnati) 28 Feb. 2008. 7 May 2009.
  17. Rutledge, Mike. “Needed: Donors to light up Roebling.” Enquirer (Cincinnati) 14 April 2008. 7 May 2009.
  18. “Envision Roebling in a rainbow of colors.” Enquirer (Cincinnati) 11 Jan. 2009. 6 May 2009.
  19. Rutledge, Mike. “Roebling to stick to plain lights.” Enquirer (Cincinnati) 4 March 2009. 7 May 2009.
  20. Rutledge, Mike. “Ohioans resisted Suspension Bridge.” Enquirer [Cincinnati] 12 Jan. 2011. 25 Jan. 2011.