Bridges are a familiar part of the mountainous West Virginia landscape, carrying roads and railroads over rivers and creeks.
In the state’s long history, many of those early bridges don’t merit even a footnote, while others seem worthy of a full chapter all to themselves. Some of those historic spans are gone, while others still carry a daily flow of cars and trucks.
Many of West Virginia’s bridges have unique stories to tell. Here a few of them.
An engineering marvel
Many people said it couldn’t be done.
They said West Virginia’s New River Gorge was so vast and its sides so rocky and steep there was no way it could be spanned by a bridge.
They were wrong.
Today the New River Gorge Bridge is an engineering marvel and one of the state’s best-known landmarks. It was used on the West Virginia quarter in the U.S. Mint’s series of state quarters, and in 2011 was featured on a U.S. postage stamp.
The bridge, located just a bit northeast of Fayetteville, carries Appalachian Corridor L (U.S. 19) across the scenic gorge. At 876 feet above the riverbed, it’s the third highest bridge in the nation.
Its length of 3,030 feet made it the world’s largest single-arch steel span until 2003.
The case for building the span was a strong one. Before its construction, local residents faced a drive of 45 minutes if they wanted to travel from one side of the gorge to the other. Today, crossing the bridge takes about 45 seconds.
The bridge’s $37 million price tag made it the most expensive project ever undertaken by the West Virginia Division of Highways at that time.
Before construction began, Michael Baker Inc., the engineering firm hired to design the span, offered several different ideas, including a suspension design. Ultimately, the steel arch design was chosen.
The American Bridge Division of U.S. Steel won the construction contract and began work in the summer of 1973. Rail lines were constructed at the bottom of the gorge to bring in steel and other construction materials.
The bridge was fashioned from Cor-Ten steel alloy. Cor-Ten develops a stable rust-like appearance as it’s exposed to the weather over a period of years. This means the bridge will never need painting.
Cables were stretched across the gorge above the construction site, and lengths of steel for the bridge were moved out over the abyss using a trolley system. Twin 330-foot-high towers on each side of the gorge supported the cables.
A helicopter carried the first cable — half an inch in diameter — across the gorge, stretching it between the two towers. It was followed by a one-inch cable and, finally, by the three-inch cable necessary to lift the steel girders in place. The bridge was built simultaneously from each side.
An estimated 30,000 people turned out for the dedication of the new bridge on Oct. 22, 1977.
This dedication celebration inspired the creation of Bridge Day, first observed on Nov. 8, 1980. Each year since, on the third Saturday in October, the span has been closed to celebrate West Virginia’s largest one-day festival. Pedestrians are permitted on the bridge, and BASE jumpers from around the world gather to parachute off the structure.
The U.S. Park Service has a visitor center just north of the bridge on U.S. 19, offering a grand view of the soaring span. Since 2010, paid tours have enabled visitors to walk the catwalk under the deck of the bridge, while secured by safety cables.
In 2013, the bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Ordinarily, places added to the list must be at least 50 years old. An exception was made for the New River Gorge Bridge for its remarkable achievements in engineering and transportation.
Historic suspension bridge
Opened in 1849, the 1,010-foot- long wire suspension bridge that connects Wheeling Island with downtown Wheeling was for many years the longest bridge of its type in the world. It’s been designated a national landmark by both the National Park Service and the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Charles Ellet Jr., its designer, actively promoted suspension bridges in America following his studies at the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussees in Paris, followed by a tour of French suspension bridges. His first success came when he was appointed chief engineer for a Philadelphia bridge that became a prototype for the Wheeling span.
The distinctive features of the bridge are its main and stay cables of wrought-iron wire, vertical suspenders, massive stone towers, timber-stiffening trusses flanking the roadway and large stone anchorages. All the components of the bridge were supplied locally.
The Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company built and operated the bridge with financing by local stockholders. No state or federal funds were used.
When the bridge opened, it prompted a suit filed by the state of Pennsylvania, which claimed it illegally obstructed the steamboat trade on the Ohio because the boats’ stacks could not clear its deck during periods of high water. The U.S, Supreme Court ordered the bridge torn down. But the U.S. Congress came to its rescue by declaring it a lawful structure.
Less than two years later, Mother Nature did what the high court couldn’t when a violent windstorm blew the bridge down. Ellet rebuilt it in an astonishing 40 days, strengthening it in the process.
Over the years, the bridge has been remodeled a number of times. Its timber flooring was replaced by an open steel grid in 1956. In 1999, an overhaul was completed in time for the bridge’s 150th anniversary. Given that it was built before automobiles were invented, a two-ton weight limit was imposed.
Until recently, the bridge continued to carry vehicular traffic. Last summer, an overweight tour bus disregarded the weight limit and badly damaged the bridge, forcing it to close for six weeks while repairs were made. The bridge was briefly reopened but in September the West Virginia Department of Transportation, citing the danger due to drivers not following the weight limit, said it had decided to close the bridge indefinitely. Officials have said one or two overweight buses driving across it could have catastrophic results.
In October, Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott wrote state Secretary of Transportation Byrd White urging that the state explore possible technological options available that could limit overweight vehicles and thus allow the bridge to re-open.
White has since rejected the mayor’s request, saying the bridge will remain closed to vehicular traffic “until a permanent solution can be developed.”
State’s oldest bridge
The Elm Grove Stone Arch Bridge, which carries the National Road (U.S. 40) over Little Wheeling Creek in Wheeling, is the oldest bridge in the state. Also known as the Monument Place Bridge, it was built in 1817 by Moses Shepherd. Constructed of limestone, the bridge is 208 feet long and features a distinctive three-arch design.
Moses Shepherd and his wife, Lydia Boggs Shepherd, were an influential couple whose mansion, Shepherd Hall, hosted some of the era’s most famous political figures. Their friendship with Henry Clay helped secure the route of the National Road.
Lydia Shepherd wanted the road to pass in front of the couple’s home, so the route was altered from the north side of Little Wheeling Creek to the south and then back again, requiring the construction of two bridges. Moses Shepherd received the contract to build them, one at Triadelphia (demolished in 1934) and another at Elm Grove, near their home. In 1820, Shepherd honored Clay with an elaborate monument on his estate. Thus, Shepherd home came to be called Monument Place and the bridge known as the Monument Place Bridge.
The span, which continues to carry vehicular traffic, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981.
In May, the West Virginia Division of Highways announced plans to rehabilitate the 202-year-old bridge in a $5.8 million project slated to begin early next year. The Division of Highways said the work is needed to keep the bridge open for vehicles. Traffic will be detoured while the work is taking place. Officials are hoping to finish the repair work in early 2021.
Philippi Covered Bridge
Writing about the state’s bridges in “The West Virginia’s Encyclopedia,” Dr. Emory L. Kemp, professor emeritus of history and civil engineering at West Virginia University, notes that “because of their cost and the lack of skilled masons,” stone bridges such as the Elm Creek bridge “didn’t develop into a major type in the 19th Century.”
“More familiar,” writes Kemp, “are the covered bridges, which are roofed and sided against the weather. ... The best known covered bridge builder was Lemuel Chinoweth.”
Chenoweth designed at least a dozen covered bridges in West Virginia, including the famous bridge that spans the Tygart River at Philippi in Barbour County. The 285-foot-long span is the longest and oldest covered bridge in the state. It was built in 1852, a decade before West Virginia broke away from Virginia.
According to legend, Chenoweth convinced members of the Virginia Legislature to award him the contract to build the span by placing a wooden model of his masterpiece between two chairs and standing on it.
The bridge cost just over $12,000 to build.
The bridge was heavily utilized by both armies during the Civil War. At one point, Union troops took control of the bridge and used it as a barracks.
Though extremely versatile, wood has one obvious disadvantage — it burns. In early February 1989, the Philippi Covered Bridge nearly burned down when a spark from of a car set off a stream of gasoline that had run back downhill from the overflow at a local filling station to the bridge. The fire destroyed 60 percent of the span’s yellow poplar timbers, siding and roof.
On Sept. 16, 1991, two years and seven months after fire nearly destroyed it, the Philippi Covered Bridge was returned to service when Gov. Gaston Caperton cut the ribbon officially reopening the span after it was painstakingly rebuilt.
The successful return of the historic span to its original appearance — work that set standards for future renovation of the state’s remaining covered bridges — was the result of a cooperative effort involving the governor, the West Virginia Division of Highways, West Virginia University, foresters and a local restoration fundraising effort.
Huntington’s eye-catching span
Officially, it’s named the Frank Gatski Memorial Bridge. But nobody calls it that. Folks call it the East Huntington Bridge, the East End Bridge or sometimes the 31st Street Bridge. But no matter what you call it, it’s a thing of beauty.
The eye-catching bridge is striking in its sleek, modern design, with a single soaring tower and a pattern of cable stays fanning down from it.
The completion and dedication of the bridge in 1985 brought a long-overdue end to decades of controversy and delay. No one questioned the need for the new bridge, but selecting a site for it ignited a controversy that went on for years.
Huntington’s bridges crossing the Ohio River have played a significant role in the city’s history.
Collis P. Huntington, who founded the city in 1871, foresaw the day his namesake town would need a bridge across the Ohio. He even bought a plot of Ohio land for the purpose. But the city would be more than 50 years old before its first Ohio River bridge was constructed.
Timber tycoon C.L. Ritter enlisted a dozen or so Huntington businessmen in constructing the span. In April 1925, they chose a site just west of the city’s downtown at 6th Street, and construction began. The span was opened to traffic on May 23, 1926, with an estimated 10,000 visitors on hand for the dedication ceremonies. Cars using the bridge were charged a toll of 25 cents. Trucks paid up to $1, depending on their size. Bicycle riders and pedestrians paid 5 cents.
The 6th Street Bridge remained privately owned until 1940, when the builders sold it to Cabell County for $2 million. In 1952, unable to finance needed repairs to the span, the county was happy to turn the bridge over to the state.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, drivers waiting to cross the two-lane span clogged the city’s downtown streets at the evening rush hour, while the Ohio side saw a similar traffic snarl in the mornings. Clearly, the city needed another bridge.
Successfully campaigning for West Virginia governor in 1964, Hulett C. Smith pledged that, if elected, he would build two new bridges in Huntington — one in each end of the city.
In 1968, Huntington saw the opening of a new two-lane bridge at West 17th Street. But the promised construction of a companion bridge in East Huntington didn’t happen. Instead, what transpired was years of feuding, fussing and fighting about the best place to build the new span.
In 1971, the state said it had decided to build the bridge just off 31st Street in Guyandotte. A small band of residents in the historic neighborhood immediately protested and threatened to fight the matter in court. In 1974, they made good on that threat, firing the first shot in a long legal battle they ultimately lost.
Years before, the state had sold bonds to construct the bridge, but by 1976, inflation and the court delay had combined to erode the funds to the point the state no longer had enough money to build it. In Washington, U.S. Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jennings Randolph and Rep. Nick Rahall began looking for federal money to help build the span — a search that eventually yielded $27 million in federal funding.
Even so, more delays ensued. And then there was the radical new design of the bridge, which posed a challenge to builders who were unfamiliar with it.
Arvid Grant & Associates of Olympia, Washington, designed Huntington’s new bridge. The firm pioneered concrete, cable-stayed bridge design in this country. The design — stringing a bridge up by cables and hanging it from a tower — was widely employed in Europe in the 1950s, using steel. Today, concrete is used instead.
The firm designed the first such bridge in North America — the Pasco-Kennewick Intercity Bridge in Washington state — in 1978. The East Huntington span was the second to be constructed. In 1990, a similar cable-stayed bridge was built connecting Weirton and Steubenville, Ohio.
The deck of the cable-stayed Huntington bridge is supported by 31 pairs of steel cables, which are in turn supported by a single tower rising 280 feet above the deck. The tower is an inverted Y, with the two-lane roadway going between the two legs of the Y.
The first car finally drove across the new bridge in 1985. The original cost estimate for the two-lane bridge was $7 million. It ended up costing $38 million.
In 1986, the elegant span won the Federal Highway Administration’s award for design excellence.
Silver Bridge fatal flaw
Charles P. Vogel was proud of the Silver Bridge.
Vogel was the resident engineer in charge of constructing the superstructure for the bridge that was completed and opened in 1928 to connect Point Pleasant and Kanauga, Ohio. But Vogel’s pride was mixed with concern. He worried that the unusual design of the bridge might not get the careful scrutiny and care he knew it would require.
That concern proved well placed.
At about 5 p.m. on Dec. 15, 1967, the Silver Bridge was crowded with rush-hour traffic when it suddenly collapsed, taking with it dozens of vehicles and claiming the lives of 46 victims. It took only a few seconds for the bridge to fall like a row of dominoes.
The Silver Bridge — so named because it was the first bridge in the area to be painted with shiny aluminum paint — was built with an innovative eyebar-link suspension system rather than traditional wire-cable suspension. An exhaustive investigation into the collapse by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that one of the eyebars had failed, first developing a tiny hidden crack and ultimately fracturing.
An account of the tragedy on the West Virginia Department of Transportation’s website quotes the NTSB report as saying the minute crack “was inaccessible to visual inspection” and could not have been detected “by any ... method ... without disassembly of the eyebar joint.” Obviously that was a physical impossibility.
When Vogel took over at the Silver Bridge construction site he succeeded another engineer who had been transferred to St. Mary’s, where the company was overseeing construction of a second Ohio River span being built from the same eyebar design as the Silver Bridge. In the wake of the Silver Bridge collapse, the St. Mary’s bridge was closed and later demolished.
A replacement for the Silver Bridge was completed in 1969. Named the Silver Memorial Bridge, it is located about one mile downstream of the original bridge.