The National Road: West Virginia
Wheeling Suspension Bridge
Wheeling and the National Road is home to one of the greatest engineering achievements in American History.  The nearly 170 year old Wheeling Suspension Bridge is the oldest operating suspension bridge in the world.  The bridge was the first to span a main channel of the Ohio River (1).  In 1836, a two span covered bridge opened over the back channel of the Ohio in Wheeling.  This bridge crossed at the site of an 1893 truss and modern day bridge that carries Route 40 over the back channel to this day!  (2)

The story of the bridge was amplified by a bidding and design war between two prominent suspension bridge designers, Charles Ellet, Jr. and John Roebling.  The two rivals would compete for the commission until Ellet's design won out in 1847.  The 1,010 foot bridge took two years to complete.  It opened on October 20, 1849, although the official grand opening would take place on November 15.  The bridge was immediately put into service as a toll bridge.

The Terrific Storm

On May 17, 1854, a violent gale destroyed most of the bridge with much of the span crashing into the Ohio.  One account of the collapse read:

"For a few moments we watched it with breathless anxiety, lunging like a ship in the storm; at one time it rose to nearly the heighth of the towers then fell, and twisted and writhed, and was dashed almost bottom upward. At last there seemed to be a determined twist along the entire span, about one half of the flooring being nearly reversed, and down went the immense structure from its dizzy heighth to the stream below, with an appalling crash and roar. Nearly the entire structure struck the water at the same instant dashing up an unbroken column of foam across the river, to the heighth of at least forty feet! " (3)
Many have compared the 1854 collapsed to that of the famed 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

The collapse ended Ellet's turbulent career as a bridge designer and builder.  To repair the span, Roebling, who had since gained national acclaim for his railroad bridge over the Niagara River, was commissioned to rebuild the bridge at a cost of $42,000 (4).

To preserve the structure and keep it usable, the bridge would have major repairs done in 1956, 1982, and 1999.  It has received numerous awards and honors including:

  • National Historic Engineering Landmark; 1969
  • National Historic Landmark; 1975
  • National Register of Historic Places; 1980
  • Left Image: Westbound on the Wheeling Suspension Bridge towards Wheeling Island.  (Photo taken by Doug Kerr)

    Right Image: Eastbound on the Wheeling Suspension Bridge towards downtown Wheeling.  (Photo taken by Doug Kerr)

    Left Image: Looking upriver at the Wheeling Suspension Bridge from Wheeling Island.  In the foreground is the Suspension Bridge, behind it the Fort Henry Bridge that carries I-70 and US 40 over the main channel of the Ohio River.  (Photo Taken by Doug Kerr)

    Right Image: A look at the Wheeling Island bridge tower.  (Photo taken by Doug Kerr)

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  • Sources & Links:

  • (1) "Wheeling Suspension Bridge." (March 5, 2005)
  • (2) Kemp, Dr. Emory. "The Wheeling Suspension Bridge Tour." (March 5, 2005)
  • (3) "Terrific Storm! Destruction of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge!" The Intelligencer (Wheeling, Va.), vol. 2, no. 225, Thursday, May 18, 1854, p. 3
  • (4) Steinman, D.B. "Dedication of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge as a National Monument." May 20, 1956.
  • Wheeling Suspension Bridge Index ---Ohio County (WV) Public Library
  • US 40 @ WV Highways Page ---H.B. Elkins
  • Wheeling Suspension Bridge ---Barb and John Bee
  • Wheeling Virtual Tour @ ---Sandor Gulyas and Marc Fannin
  • Route 40 Net ---Frank Brusca

  • Page Created: March 5, 2005
    Last Updated: March 5, 2005

    (C) 2005 Adam Prince