Wheeling Suspension Bridge (WV 251)

The Wheeling Suspension Bridge carries WV 251 over the Ohio River between Wheeling and Wheeling Island, West Virginia. It was the largest suspension bridge in the world from 1849 until 1851 and the first bridge over the Ohio River.

Amid intense debate, the National Road from Cumberland, Maryland to Wheeling was approved by the Federal Government in 1806.4 Planning and surveying for the preferred alignment took four years and another eight to complete construction of the roadway. The first section opened in 1813 and did not reach Wheeling until 1818. In anticipation, the Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company was granted a charter in 1816 to provide ferry and bridge service over the Ohio River at Wheeling.

It was not until 1836 that a two span covered bridge was completed over the back channel of the Ohio River, from Wheeling Island to Ohio.4 It was replaced in 1893 by a metal truss bridge. But it was shortly after the completion of the covered span that Charles Ellet met with the bridge company about the possibility of a suspension bridge over the main channel to replace the existing ferry. Upon his next visit in 1841, Ellet noted that it would cost $120,000 to construct a suspension bridge. Ellet’s rival, John A. Roebling, came to Wheeling a year later and estimated the cost of such a span at $150,000, although he revised it lower to $130,000 by eliminating the architectural details.

The General Assembly of Virginia amended the Act of 1816 that established the bridge company on March 19, 1847.4 The amendment authorized the sale of capital stock of $135,000 or less. In May, the company invited Ellet and Roebling to present their designs and cost estimates. Ellet was chosen over Roebling, notably because Roebling proposed the construction of river piers which would have been difficult to erect and would have posed a hazard to navigation.

Construction started shortly after and opened in 1849 as the first major suspension bridge in the United States.3 It was a simple timber deck resting on transverse timber floor beams which were in turn supported at their ends by wrought iron suspenders hung from the main cables. This bridge, with 2×6 cables, was destroyed on May 17, 1854 in a violent gale.

A temporary bridge was soon erected in its place at a cost of $17,000.5 It was removed when the new Wheeling Suspension Bridge, which had an estimated cost of $37,000, opened on July 30, 1860.6 It featured improvements by Ellet’s partner William McComas, and later the addition of auxiliary stay cables in 1871-72 by Washington Roebling and Hildebrand and other improvements in 1874 by William Hildenbrand.3 4

The timber bridge deck was modified in 1922, 1930 and 1948.4 The lower links of hangers were repaired or replaced in 1953.8 In September 1955, when the new Fort Henry Bridge opened to traffic, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge was closed for a $400,000 restoration project that was headed by Ferguson & Edmundson of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.7 The timber deck was replaced with open steel grating, and lightened steel floor beams were added in order to cut down on dead loads and wind resistance.3 The roadway was widened from 16.25-feet to 20 feet and the sidewalks were narrowed. The crossing reopened on August 2, 1957.7

The bridge was honored as a National Historic Civil Engineering landmark in 1969, and was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1975, the highest honor that could be bestowed on a non-federal site or structure.3 It was also the first bridge to be designed as a Landmark.1 Five years later, the suspension span was listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior.

The suspension bridge was closed for an extensive $2.4 million restoration project in 1982 that repaired cables and anchorages, and required the reconstruction of several trusses.4 West Virginia celebrated the grand opening of the restored Wheeling Suspension Bridge on May 5, 1983.

In 1986, the stiffening truss braces were repaired and replaced and 154 specially designed globe lights with high-pressure sodium lamps were added to the bridge in the following year. Further renovation was completed in 1999. The Wheeling Suspension Bridge is currently being nominated as an international landmark by the International Council on Monuments and Sites.1

  • Gallery
  • Statistics
  • Sources
  • Designation: WV 251
  • Crosses: Ohio River
  • Bridge Type: Suspension
  • Total Length: 1010 feet
  • Main Span Length: 949 feet
  • Deck Width: 20 feet
  • Vertical Clearance: 23 feet
  • Height: 153.5 feet (east tower); 132.75 feet (west tower)
  • Number of Lanes: 2
  1. “The Wheeling Suspension Bridge Tour.” Ohio County Public Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 March 2004 Article.
  2. Jackson, Donald C. Great American Bridges and Dams. N.p.: Wiley, n.d. 159. Print.
  3. United States. Dept. of the Interior. Wheeling Suspension Bridge. Comp. Emory Kemp. Washington: National Park Service, Feb. 1975.
  4. Kemp, Emory. “THE WHEELING SUSPENSION BRIDGE TOUR.” Ohio County Public Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2013. Article.
  5. “The Suspension Bridge.” Daily Intelligencer [Wheeling] 26 July 1860: n. pag. Print. Article.
  6. Daily Intelligencer [Wheeling] 28 July 1860: n. pag. Print. Article.
  7. “Suspension Bridge Opens Today After $400,000 ‘Face Lifting’.” Intelligencer [Wheeling] 2 Aug. 1957: n. pag. Print. Article.
  8. “Wheeling Suspension Bridge Previous Bridge Work.” Ohio County Public Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2013. Article.

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