The historic Wheeling Suspension Bridge carries the National Road over the Ohio River between Wheeling Island and downtown Wheeling, West Virginia. It was the first bridge to span the Ohio River and the largest suspension bridge in the world from 1849 until 1851.
A charter was granted to the Wheeling & Belmont Bridge Company to construct a bridge over the main channel of the Ohio River in 1816. It would extend the National Road into Ohio, which had reached Wheeling on August 1, 1818. At the time, both Wheeling and Pittsburgh competed to become commercial hubs, connecting the Eastern Seaboard with the Midwest across the central Appalachian Mountains. In 1820, Congress authorized the National Road’s extension to St. Louis, Missouri.
By 1836, the Wheeling & Belmont Bridge Company had raised sufficient private funds to build a wooden bridge over the backchannel of the Ohio River between Zane’s Island (renamed Wheeling Island in 1902) and Ohio and began eyeing the construction of a bridge over the main channel between Zane’s Island and Wheeling. 5 But Pennsylvania legislatures blocked federal legislation to authorize the proposed main channel bridge.
A federal proposal in 1836 called for a suspension bridge with a removal section to enable steamboat smokestacks to clear, but Congress tabled it. 5 Another proposal to require hinges on high steamboat smokestacks also failed to garner any traction.
As traffic on the National Road languished, congressmen from Virginia abandoned efforts to win federal funding for the Wheeling bridge in early 1847. 5 That year, civic boosters formed a new company to build a bridge and requested proposals in May 1847.
Despite the delays, the legislatures of Virginia and Ohio jointly issued a new Wheeling bridge charter. Charles Ellett Jr. and John A. Roebling were invited to submit designs and estimates for a suspension bridge over the main channel of the Ohio River. 6 Both were the foremost authority on bridges of that crossing type. 7
The proposed structure would be 90 feet above low water, which relied on the highest smokestacks on steamboats being about 60 feet in height. 8 But with stack heights increasing each year, the planned bridge came to impede the largest steamboats. Nevertheless, Ellett was awarded a $120,000 contract to build the bridge in 1847, beating out Roebling’s bid for a shorter double-span crossing that was estimated to cost $130,000.
The Wheeling Suspension Bridge was completed in November 1849 at the cost of $250,000. 8 It featured a simple timber deck that rested on transverse timber floor beams, which were supported at their ends by wrought iron suspenders hung from main cables. It was the first major suspension bridge in the United States and allowed for the National Road to be connected by a fixed crossing.
Litigation in the United States Supreme Court relating to its potential obstruction of high steamboat stacks between 1849 and 1852 cleared the way for the erection of other bridges over navigable waters.
Second Suspension Bridge
The suspension bridge was subjected to torsional and vertical movements that caused the flooring to be tossed to the height of the towers and resulted in the collapse of the crossing on May 17, 1854. 8
Justice Grier issued an injunction against the bridge’s rebuilding during the court’s normal summer break, but the building of a temporary crossing, designed by William McComas, was put into place by July 26. 5 It had a 14-foot-wide deck and functioned with alternating one-way traffic.
At the same time, the Wheeling & Belmont Bridge Company asked Congress whether Grier had been bribed, and complained that the injunction violated both Congress’ sovereignty and that of Virginia, who had authorized the crossing. 5 Additionally, the Ohio, Virginia, and Indiana legislatures petitioned Congress to save the bridge. Through the efforts of Wheeling Congressman George W. Thompson and others, Congress passed a law that designated the bridge a post road before the Supreme Court’s 1852 decision could go into effect. A second set of legal arguments concerning the bridge was heard soon after, and in December, Justice Nelson upheld the Wheeling bridge as an exercise of Congressional power over military and postal roads despite some objections.
A permanent suspension bridge, with the same design as the original, opened in 1859 at the cost of $40,000.
William Hildenbrand modified the span based upon designs by Washington A. Roebling in 1871-72 by adding auxiliary stay cables and replacing the deck to add strength and resistance against strong winds. Other improvements designed by Hildenbrand were made in 1886, and other repairs were carried out in 1922 and 1930. To cut down on dead loads and add wind resistance, the timber bridge deck was replaced with open steel grating and steel floor beams were added in 1956. 8 This widened the roadway from 16¼ feet to 20 feet and narrowed the sidewalks considerably.
The Wheeling & Belmont Bridge Company sold the Wheeling Suspension Bridge to the city of Wheeling in 1927, which was later taken over by the West Virginia Department of Highways (WVDOH). 7 The crossing was honored as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1969 and was listed as a National Historic Landmark, the highest honor that could be bestowed on a non-federal site or structure, in 1975. 1 It was then listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
The ailing bridge was closed for an extensive $2.4 million restoration project in 1982. It required the repair of cables and anchorages and required the reconstruction of several trusses. It was reopened during a grand celebration on May 5, 1983.
In 1987, the 154 specially designed globe lights were added to the bridge. Further renovation to the crossing was completed in 1999.
At the time of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge’s construction, a horse and buggy were the heaviest live load that would be expected. A 4,000-pound weight limit was later placed upon the bridge, which made it unsuitable for trucks, buses, or other heavy vehicles.
Over time, errant trucks and buses onto the bridge have caused the crossing to be periodically closed for inspections and repairs, such as when a Greyhound bus attempted to cross the bridge on March 23, 2016, 9 followed by a charter bus on June 29, 2019. 3 The charter bus driver was cited for the overweight vehicle and failure to obey a traffic control device. The bridge was reopened on August 13 after WVDOH installed a height barrier with hard restraints in an attempt to eliminate overweight crossings. 2 4
Because of the continued disregard of the bridge’s weight limit and height restrictions, WVDOH closed the Wheeling Suspension Bridge to all vehicular traffic on September 24, 2019. 2 The crossing is expected to remain closed to non-automobile traffic until a rehabilitation project is conducted in 2021. 4
- State: West Virginia
- Route: National Road
- Type: Wire Suspension
- Status: Active - Pedestrian
- Total Length: 1307 feet
- Main Span Length: 949 feet
- Deck Width: 20 feet
- Above Vertical Clearance: 22.7 feet
- “The Wheeling Suspension Bridge Tour.” Ohio County Public Library. 17 Mar. 2004.
- “Wheeling Suspension Bridge closed to vehicular traffic after continued public disregard of safety signs.” West Virginia Department of Transportation, 24 Sept. 2019.
- “Charter Bus Crosses 2-Ton Limit Wheeling Suspension Bridge; Span Closed.” Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, 2 Apr. 2020.
- Flatley, Jake. “Wheeling Suspension Bridge back open as long-term solutions being discussed.” MetroNews, 13 Aug. 2019.
- “Wheeling Bridge Case in the Supreme Court.” Ohio County Public Library.
- Jackson, Donald C. “Great American Bridges and Dams.” Great American Bridges and Dams, Wiley, 1988, p. 159.
- Reyes, Abraham. “The Disasters and Politics of the Wheeling Bridge.” 15 May 2003.
- Kemp, Emory. “Wheeling Suspension Bridge.” National Park Service, Feb. 1975.
- Richter, Nick. “Wheeling Suspension Bridge Closed Indefinitely.” WTRF, 20 Apr. 2016.