Historic Structures

The Bridge Collapse Wheeling Suspension Bridge, Wheeling West Virginia

A two-year period of peace reigned until May 17, 1854, when a strong wind that had been blowing all day apparently rose in intensity about 3:00 p.m. and sent the bridge to oscillating. The inhabitants had experienced slight undulations of the bridge before, and seemed to enjoy the sensation they felt from these vibrations. An Intelligencer reporter happened to be on the bridge that fateful afternoon, enjoying the experience. When the bridge began to sway violently, he thought it prudent to leave. Two minutes after leaving the bridge, he saw people running toward the river bank. Retracing his steps, he saw the bridge leaping and, in the next day's paper, gave this classic description of the bridge's death throes:

"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 height 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 height 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 height of at least forty feet!"

The reporter observed that on the Wheeling side of the bridge, all except two cables on the north side and one small cable on the south side were torn from their anchorage in the heavy masonry on Main Street, one stone in this masonry weighing 1500 pounds being thrown several feet. The large iron gate at this end was "shivered to atoms," and the toll house completely demolished, the toll keeper making a narrow escape with his life. On the island side, but one cable broke from the anchorage. Only two of the cables snapped asunder, and that at the outside of the towers, the rest of their breakage being at their connection with the anchors.

"We witnessed the terrific scene and saw that it was brought about by the violence of the gale. The great body of the flooring and the suspenders, forming something like a basket swung between the towers, was swayed to and for, like the motion of a pendulum. The cables on the south side were finally blown off the apex of the eastern tower, retaining their position on the opposite site of the river. This destroyed the equilibrium of the swinging body; and each vibration giving it increased momentum, the cables, which sustained the whole structure, were unable to resist a force operating on them in so many different directions, and were literally twisted and wrenched from their fastenings."

First reports of other damage done by the wind were quite impressive, but one suspects that they were influenced by the emotional impact upon the reporter of the collapse of the bridge. Writing from the calmer vantage point of May 23 the Intelligencer reported that "The storm did other damage in the city, but nothing of a serious character." D. B. Steinman, famous bridge builder and Roebling biographer, likened the phenomena exhibited at Wheeling to the behavior of "Galloping Gertie," the Tacoma bridge destroyed by a. wind of less than hurricane proportions. Appearing in Wheeling on May 20, 1956, on the occasion of the reopening of the suspension bridge after renovation and repair, Steinman spoke of the importance of the field of aerodynamics, the science of gases in motion which he introduced into civil engineering courses in 1918 for the first time in the history of the profession.°Steinman died in 1960 after completing the five-mile-long bridge over the Straits of Mackinac, whose main span is the third largest in the world. Steinman made the following comment on the Wheeling newspaper story:

'The newspaper man who wrote the foregoing dramatic account unknowingly summarized the crux of the aero-dynamic phenomenon he had observed when he used the significant phrase: "Each vibration giving it increased momentum." And when he stated that the mechanical solution of the failure "must await further developments," he wrote better than he knew.'

From what Steinman said and has written, it is logical to believe that he received his first inspiration to pursue this still mysterious subject of aerodynamics because of the collapse of the Wheeling bridge and John Roebling's astute reflections thereon. Steinman's proposal to help with the designing of Galloping Gertie was dismissed by the Russian-born Moisseff, but there is no bridge builder today who will ignore the Roebling and Steinman principles of stiffening trusses, and inclined and under-floor stays.

Upon hearing of the Wheeling disaster, Roebling ordered more wire from Trenton for the Niagara span, although he had introduced all of the aforementioned safety factors into the Niagara bridge. After months of reflection on the fall of the Wheeling bridge, he wrote concerning its demise with considerable engineering insight, but his advice was forgotten or unheeded.

On the day following the gale, the steamer "Pennsylvania" lowered her stacks in derision as she passed over the wreckage of the bridge. The Intelligencer, cut to the quick by the action, reminded Pittsburghers how Wheelingites had organized a relief expedition when Pittsburgh residents had been prostrated by a disaster.