The Bridge That Wasn’t There

Did time travelers, clairvoyants, or civic optimism place an image of the Roebling Suspension Bridge in a local history book seven years before it opened? Plus other missing building mysteries.

If you should find yourself paging through Charles Cist’s Sketches and Statistics of Cincinnati in 1859, you may notice a rather curious anachronism. On page 12 is an engraving of Cincinnati, probably from a vantage point somewhere near what’s now Devou Park. The Queen City skyline is punctuated by a dozen church spires, and the river is spanned by our magnificent Roebling Suspension Bridge.

This optimistic engraving decorated a book about Cincinnati published in 1859, long before the suspension bridge pictured here was constructed.

“Sketches and Statistics of Cincinnati in 1859,” digitized by the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

This is quite impossible, of course. The Suspension Bridge was not opened until December 1866. There would have been no deck, no cables, and no towers in 1859, only two partially constructed pylons, abandoned during a financial panic. Those pylons would remain incomplete throughout the Civil War. How did the artist depict a bridge that wasn’t there?

Back in the 1850s and 1860s, it was common for book collectors to rebind books, and just as common to add a variety of extraneous material to the rebound volume. Maybe that’s what happened here. Someone purchased the 1859 volume, had it rebound sometime after 1866, and added an engraving of the city that included the new Suspension Bridge.

A little investigation shows that theory to be unlikely. Cist’s book, an essential source for anyone investigating Cincinnati history, is represented among the collections of the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and Yale University in addition to the Cincinnati Public Library. Every one of these volumes contains the engraving with the Suspension Bridge.

It’s obvious, then, that a time traveler from the late 1860s popped up in 1859 Cincinnati and sold a print depicting the downtown skyline from a decade in the future. Well, it might have been obvious had Cincinnati not experienced a long history of fanciful depictions of community landmarks.

Although this image decorated Cincinnati promotional materials for a decade, the building pictured here was not constructed other than a single wing.

"Illustrated Business Directory and Picturesque Cincinnati 1885," digitized by the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

Examine, for example, the illustration of the University of Cincinnati that appears atop page 185 of The Cincinnati Illustrated Business Directory for 1885. While the illustration gives the address of “North Side McMicken Avenue Between Race and Elm Streets,” the building illustrated never occupied that plot of ground.

A close inspection shows a tall central tower surmounted by a jauntily waving flag, approached by a grand staircase and supported by two extensive wings. Just one of those wings was built in 1875, in fact, and by 1885 the university was already making plans to relocate to the southern end of Burnet Woods; the central tower and second wing were never built. Regardless of reality, that imaginary building appeared in print throughout the 1880s as a representation of the city’s university.

Although all of the old depictions of Music Hall include the statue of an “Angel of Music” atop the peak of the roof, the celestial entity was never installed there.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (1878), digitized by the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

Contemporaneous with that imaginary building, Cincinnati promoted an imaginary Music Hall. The misrepresentation wasn’t quite so egregious as the UC building, but early images of Music Hall seem somehow even more grand than the lovely edifice we enjoy today. A close inspection of these initial engravings reveals a statue in dramatic pose, capping the building’s central pinnacle. Sometimes referred to as the “Angel of Music,” it doesn’t appear that this celestial figure was ever installed.

Perhaps the most imposing structure never built in Cincinnati was the Sinton Rostrum. Inspired by his friend, Henry Probasco, who donated the iconic Tyler Davidson Fountain to the city in 1871, David Sinton proposed an equally ostentatious structure eastward on Fifth Street in Government Square.

Cincinnatians awoke on May 21, 1876 to find a detailed drawing of Sinton’s proposal on The Enquirer’s front page. His concept was an impressive public space that would encourage intellectual discourse; he envisioned a forum dominated by a stone structure fronted by a balcony from which speakers might address large crowds. Behind this speaking platform, a massive statue of Cincinnatus would rise to a height of 45 feet above a collection of allegorical bronze figures representing branches of learning.

Cincinnati industrialist David Sinton was ready to decorate Government Square with an imposing edifice, until a penny-pinching city council dashed the idea.

Cincinnati Enquirer (1876), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Sinton certainly had the money to build his Rostrum, but the project screeched to a halt in a collision between money and politics. The Consolidated Street Railway Company’s street car lines crisscrossed Government Square and would have to be moved for this project. The company agreed to the move so long as it cost them nothing. In other words, the city or Sinton would have to make up the costs. He looked to city leaders, who balked, and he then bowed out.

Back to Charles Cist. His 1859 Sketches and Statistics is the third book he produced in this series, following volumes issued in 1841 and 1851. Only the 1851 book mentions the prospect of a bridge across the Ohio River, and only tentatively. Although John Roebling had been involved in the bridge project since 1846, actual construction didn’t begin until a decade later. A financial panic in 1857 and the Civil War delayed completion.

Cist’s subtle anachronism in 1859, therefore, appears less like time travel or clairvoyance and more like a vote of confidence in his beloved city.

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