Historic Structures

The Bridge Reconstruction Wheeling Suspension Bridge, Wheeling West Virginia

The bridge directors immediately appointed a five-man reconstruction committee who telegraphed Ellet the sad news and asked for two rebuilding plans, one for temporary repair and one for long-range construction. Ellet came quickly, arriving May 21, and rejected the idea of an abutment in the middle of the river. It was undoubtedly a prick to his pride in the suspension principle, but also an invitation to the Pennsylvania interests to renew their legal attack on the bridge. As it turned out, Pennsylvania did not need any such blatant encouragement. On June 26, 1854, the Attorney General asked Justice Grier for an injunction to stay the reconstruction pending a hearing on whether the reconstruction should conform to the Court's decree at the 1851 term. Thus were bandages removed and old sores probed.

With the Supreme Court being in recess, Justice Grier, with Chief Justice Taney witnessing, granted the injunction on June 28. The action was completely ignored by Wheeling, where Captain William H. McComas was engaged, under Ellet, to superintend the salvage of much of the bridge and its reconstruction on a one-way traffic basis, with bells at either end to signal all clear from the opposite side.

The steamships Thomas Swann and Courier dragged the wreckage from the river. A ferry was rented from Shively and Smith to fulfill the company's service obligations to the public.

On July 26, a 14-foot version of the bridge was again functioning. Ever ready for a ceremony, Charles Ellet and Captain McComas reinaugurated service by crossing the bridge in a carriage on the morning of July 25. The temporary span continued to serve until 1859. The long tolerance of the makeshift arrangement is not surprising in view of renewed litigation, followed by the Panic of 1857. At the Supreme Court's December term of 1854, Pennsylvania filed a motion for sequestion against the bridge company for contempt of court and for an attachment against the bridge company officers for their contempt in disregarding the injunction.

The appeal was rejected, and from the decision as given by Justice Nelson, it would appear that Pennsylvania's only possibility of redress, in light of the Congressional action declaring the bridge to be of proper height, would have been an action at law based on damages suffered. The Wheeling officers were acquitted of contempt charges by a 5-4 vote. Justice McLean went back to the original case and asserted his belief that no preference should be given, by any regulation of commerce or revenue, to the ports of the State over those of another. Justice Daniel, on the other hand, criticized Justice Grier for his injunction on the ground that the Court must act collectively.

The court entitled Pennsylvania to collect certain costs from the bridge company, and rejected a request from Wheeling to review this order, concluding that "there must be an end to litigation." Wheeling had won its long fight, but the issues remain to plaque modern jurors.

After erecting the temporary bridge under Ellet's direction, Captain McComas departed from Wheeling with the warm praise of the directors ringing in his ears. It was natural that he be summoned to return following a resolution of the board on January 10, 1859, to create a two-lane span. The directors selected the first of two plans prepared by McComas, at an estimated cost of $35,752.75 The final cost of the first bridge project was estimated at $250,000 and that of the temporary structure at $17,000. The unanticipated costs had devalued the stock of the company from $25 per share to as low as $7.50.

With the second advent of McComas began the long process by which, over the years, the Wheeling Suspension Bride was "Roeblingized." As a first step in this direction, the board paid McComas $50.00 to make a trip to look at the Roebling bridge over the Niagara. After McComas started work on the new structure, Washington Roebling, son of John, came down from Pittsburgh to see the activity. Writing to an inquirer more than sixty years later, he had these recollections of McComas' work:

"One strand had been thrown entirely out of saddle and was made anew. He consolidated 5 or 6 separate strands into one cable, built his own little wrapping machine out of wood, very cute. The cable did not have the regulation 7 strands and was therefore awkward to compress. He made new cable bands and suspender—used the old floor and old wooden truss which acted as a railing and had no stiffness....Much of the truss had to be rebuilt. He double-tracked the floor which was only single track after the storm."

Washington Roebling, whose urbanity was in contrast with his father's serious mein, had the following kind words to say concerning his father's ancient competitor: "Ellet (sic) was a fine architect (i.e., engineer) - the Stone Towers are beautiful and stand above on high ground with a remarkable apron wall extending from the Towers down to the water's edge."

Additional information concerning McComas1 reconstruction was supplied in 1933 by a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor, T. R. Lawson, son of Joseph Lawson, suspension bridge superintendent.

"The original cables were 12 in number, consisting of 6,600 number 10 gauge iron wires. Under the reconstruction of 1860 these wires were increased about one-third and the 12 cables reduced to four, each about 7-1/2 inches in diameter, and were wrapped with No. 14 wire. The sidewalks were placed outside of the suspenders but were so narrow that difficulty was experienced in using them, this being complicated by the rather large angle made by the suspenders to the vertical. Guy piers above and below the river were also added at this time and wind guys placed at points along the platform."

On July 28, McComas crossed the bridge in a four-horse omnibus filled with invited guests, "refreshing the inner man" several times on the island and again with a larger crowd at the McLure House. The ferry was sold, traffic resumed as usual, and thoughts of major repairs were dismissed for another decade.

Following the Civil War, in October of 1865, Joseph Lawson was appointed superintendent of the suspension bridge, a position he held for 58 years until his death in December 1923. For most of his later years, he was simultaneously superintendent, treasurer, clerk and secretary, and supervised the major reconstructions of 1871, 1886, and 1921-23 so efficiently that virtually no interruption to traffic resulted. In April 1871, he was authorized to purchase new wire rope guys and to go to New York to confer with Washington Roebling in relation to the general repairs of the bridge, when Lawson called Roebling's office, Roebling was at a critical point in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge over the East River. His father had died of injuries in 1869, and only a few months before Lawson's call for help, one of Roebling's huge caissons was partially destroyed by fire. One may suppose that it was because of his generous enthusiasm for his profession rather than a desire for "poetic justice" that he complied with the request and for only $485.00 outlined not only one but two plans for strengthening and stiffening the bridge. On July 1, by motion of Michael Reilly, the second plan was unanimously adopted. Repair bills amounting to nearly $10,000 are reported in the minutes along with a sum of $1,000 paid to Superintendent Lawson over and above his salary.

T.R. Lawson reports that the Roebling company plan provided for widening the floor by forcing the cables farther apart and placing the sidewalks inside the suspenders. A system of wire stays was also added at that time, in accordance with a plan invented by the Roeblings.

Washington Roebling's brief account, understandably inaccurate in some of its dates, reveals that "about 1887 or 1883 the people were afraid of its strength. I sent Hildenbrand (William Hildenbrand, a prominent engineer) there and he put in a set of stays to strengthen and stiffen it. He calculated the margin of safety at only two times under a load of 25 lbs. per square foot, and yet the bridge does its work all right—no stretching of cables perceptible." The actual year of this alteration was 1886. Further stiffening of the bridge was accomplished by repairs of 1922 and 1930.

With the advent of automobile traffic, the bridge became a real money maker, though tolls were reduced to 5 cents and foot passengers were allowed free access. On January 1, 1927, the capital stock was increased to $1,500,000 through a new charter obtained from the State of West Virginia.

As traffic increased, it seemed to be in the public interest to put the two Wheeling bridges and rights-of-way across the east and west channels into government ownership. As a first move, the bridge company accepted an offer of $2,150,000 and conveyed its property, including the two bridges, to the city of Wheeling in 1941, and the following year, the city transferred the bridges to the State of West Virginia under the supervision of the State Road Commission.

From 1891 until about 1960, the suspension bridge had a competitor in a truss structure known as the "steel bridge," built between the island and the mainland of Wheeling one block south of the suspension bridge. A new bridge over the Ohio River was fast becoming a necessity at the half century mark, and original plans called for the demolition of both bridges when the new bridge became a reality. Fortunately, the State Road Commission decided to maintaine the suspension bridge. Engineering consultants up to and including the year 1971 have consistently given the bridge a clean bill of health. From the extensive 1953 report of Howard, Needles, Tammen and Bergertdorf of Kansas City and New York, two items are of particular interest. The first is that the original cables—save one, the oldest remaining part of the bridge exclusive of the masonry—are still functioning well Several years ago, at the northwest tower, several hundred badly-rusted wires were discovered, but these were cut out and new wires spliced in.

The engineers found the timber deck to be "quite badly deteriorated." Consequently, when the new Fort Henry bridge became serviceable, the old flooring was replaced with a steel grating floor, and sidewalks were supported on new steel floor beams. Howard and associates observed in 1966 that "the grating floor greatly reduces the chances of failure by wind. It is very unlikely that failure of the span in a wind would case any loss of life."