Looking Back at the Building of the Roebling Suspension Bridge

It took a boatload of perseverance, forethought, innovation, and dogged determination before John A. Roebling laid the first stone of his magnificent suspension bridge. One hundred and fifty years later, we’re still marveling at this icon of engineering genius and beauty, and the man who built it.
The suspension bridge as it looked in 1907, with the Island Queen side wheeler passing beneath its 2,252-foot span.

Photograph courtesy Library of Congress

They huddled closely, heads down against the assault of a biting wind. The sky was leaden but the crowd’s excitement was palpable. For years, they had watched an engineering miracle rise from two shorelines, massive sandstone pillars that would unite the North and South. Then came the bloodletting of the Civil War and it seemed no bridge—no matter how functional or beautiful—could repair the torn fabric of the Republic. But this cold December morning was a day of redemption. North and South would indeed be united, at least physically, by an imposing suspension bridge that would span the roiling waters of the Ohio River.

At 10 a.m. on December 1, 1866, a squad from the Newport Barracks let loose with a 100-volley barrage using two brass 12-pounders and the promenade began. “At that signal, a mighty rush of people presented their tickets and stepped upon the bridge,” The Cincinnati Daily Enquirer reported. By sunset, 46,000 people had crossed. The next day, an unseasonably warm Sunday, 120,000 turned out, so many that ticket-takers were overwhelmed and standing room was shoulder-to-shoulder. Even though the bridge would close for one more month before its official opening in January, the Kentucky Gazette proclaimed the preview weekend as one of “great rejoicings” and “an elixir for the war.”

The John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge has been a part of our skyline and architectural heritage ever since. It overcame engineering challenges, a hostile business community, shady politics, uncooperative weather conditions, fantastic environmental concerns, an economic depression, threats of strikes, and a country-wide civil war to grace our riverfront with both a practical transportation alternative and a work of art. “Undoubtedly it is the finest gem in the crown of the Queen City of the West,” says Don Heinrich Tolzmann, historian for the Covington & Cincinnati Suspension Bridge Committee. “Structurally and architecturally, it is a masterpiece and reflects the engineering genius of its creator, John A. Roebling.”

The idea of a bridge over the Ohio River was proposed as early as 1815 by Daniel Drake in his book Picture of Cincinnati. In the 1830s, Lexington merchants saw a bridge as a key link to the thriving port of Cincinnati, but their plans were nipped in the bud by the owners of the steamboat and ferry companies, who argued that a bridge would impede navigation, require steamboats to reduce the height of their stacks, and alter the river flow, causing ice jams and floods. Downtown merchants made their opposition plain: They didn’t want to compete with Covington.

Protectionism, however, could not stand the test of time, and in 1846 the Kentucky General Assembly awarded a charter to the Covington & Cincinnati Bridge Company. Ohio’s legislature would follow suit three years later after calming the nerves of still-recalcitrant Cincinnati business leaders who were convinced that Covington would steal all their customers.

“They cut a deal,” Tolzmann says with a sigh. The legislature simply made it harder to get from here…to there. They agreed to charter the bridge only on the condition that it not line up with any street on the Ohio side of the river. And thus was lost Roebling’s vision of a “magnificent avenue” with “long vistas” that would span the river from Scott Street on the Commonwealth side to Vine Street on the Ohio side. Think of that next time you cross the bridge into Ohio and wonder where the heck you are.

John Augustus Roebling: Without his genius, the first crossing over the Ohio might well have been merely a sterile road held up by mundane towers, as plain and forgettable as today’s Brent Spence Bridge. More likely, it would be gone, perhaps replaced by another structure as “interesting” as the Taylor-Southgate Bridge. That Roebling was an innovator and an engineering wunderkind is without doubt. But he was also an artist. He believed a bridge needed to inspire people as well as transport them.


Photograph by Ryan Kurtz

View from the top of the south tower of the Roebling Bridge while it was under construction during the Civil War.
View from the top of the south tower of the Roebling Bridge on the morning of September 14, 2016 (top) and while it was under construction during the Civil War (bottom).

Photograph courtesy Library of Congress

“Public works,” he wrote in his final report to the bridge company’s board, “should educate public taste…in the erection of public edifices, therefore, some expense may and ought to be incurred in order to satisfy the artistic aspirations of a young and growing community.”

Born in Prussia, Roebling immigrated to America in 1831 as a 25-year-old man, frustrated with the rigidity of life in his native land. As an engineering student he developed a fascination with bridges, and as a devotee of the famed philosopher Georg W.F. Hegel, he was convinced America was where he could act on his passion. Settling in Pennsylvania, he married, started a family, and farmed for a while before going to work for the state as a surveyor and builder of canals. It wasn’t long before he opened a factory that manufactured iron wire rope, a product essential to his success as an engineer and a master bridge builder. Wire rope is produced by twisting hundreds of wires together in a helix, forming a much stronger weight-bearing suspender than metal chains. Roebling was the first to produce it in America and he became a leading advocate for its use.

He wasn’t alone. Charles Ellet, an older and more experienced engineer, got the jump on Roebling, building the first suspension bridge in the country over the Schuykill River in Philadelphia before winning a contract to build another one over the Ohio in Wheeling, West Virginia. Roebling offered to help, suggesting the bridges could be strengthened by adding diagonal stays to the suspenders—a suggestion Ellet either ignored or rebuffed. And thus a rivalry was born.

The Wheeling span went up and Ellet moved to leverage his success with the next customer: the board of directors of the Covington & Cincinnati Bridge Company. He began with flattery. He proposed a 1,400-foot crossing “spanning the Ohio like a rainbow, it cannot fail to become an object of admiration to the country, a most striking monument to the enterprise of the day, a worthy ornament to your beautiful and flourishing city.”

So why didn’t Ellet beat out Roebling for the contract to build a bridge here? He might have but for one ferocious windstorm that was unfortunate for Wheeling and a godsend to Cincinnati. On May 17, 1854, hurricane-force winds battered Ellet’s new bridge for hours until it failed, swaying uncontrollably and hurtling into the swollen Ohio. “Ellet needs to be credited as a pioneer of bridge building,” Tolzmann emphasizes, “but he wasn’t the engineer that Roebling was. The good news was that Roebling learned by observing Ellet’s mistakes.”

After the collapse of the Wheeling bridge, Ellet’s career experienced a similar downward trajectory, while Roebling’s reputation rose. He had proven his engineering prowess by building an aqueduct in New York, a bridge in Pittsburgh, and a remarkable railroad span over the Niagara River. By the mid-1850s, he was ready for the big leagues and the bigwigs of Covington and Cincinnati were ready for him. They tracked him down in Waterloo, Iowa, and brought him to their offices on Greenup Street. He wasted no time in getting started. On September 22, 1856, just a month after signing his contract, Roebling laid the foundation for the cofferdam—a contained structure built below water levels which, after the water is pumped out, enables workers to build bridge piers in a dry environment. It would be the first of seven layers of timbers on the Covington side. The bridge was underway.

It didn’t take long for the bridge company to realize it had hired a can-do, no-nonsense engineer. According to Tolzmann, Roebling knew how to command a room. His piercing eyes and solemn countenance exuded focus and confidence. A dogged perfectionist, he expressed himself concisely and with no reservations. He seemed never to sleep and worked seven days a week, using the evening hours to record the day’s events meticulously in his journal. “He was a man in a hurry,” Tolzmann said. “He knew a man’s life on this earth was limited and he was in a race to get everything done that he could. He was always in a race against death.”

John Augustus Roebling, photographed in 1866-67.
John Augustus Roebling, photographed in 1866-67.

Photograph courtesy Brooklyn Museum Collection

Roebling’s first challenge was geological. The riverbed on the Cincinnati side was softer and Roebling couldn’t keep water out of the cofferdam. He needed a bigger pump, so he built one from scratch and borrowed one of Amos Shinkle’s steamboats to power it. Tolzmann describes Shinkle as one of the wealthiest men in the region at the time, a rags-to-riches tycoon who was as important to the success of the bridge as Roebling himself. He was the money man.

The bridge towers finally poked through the water in December as hundreds lined both shorelines to watch as the first layer of limestone was placed on the timber foundation. The bridge now felt real and it was the talk of the town—until the terrible winter of 1856–1857 set in. The river froze solid. A parade of snowstorms piled drifts high and the city’s commerce came to a halt. Spring’s meteorological menu included torrential rains, melting the ice and snow and turning the Ohio into a raging monster. It wasn’t until July that Roebling and his team were able to return to the bridge towers.

Those towers are made of Buena Vista sandstone, excavated from the bluffs above the Ohio River near Portsmouth. They were chosen because their higher concentration of petroleum makes them resistant to corrosion. The sandstone sits on limestone excavated from the same Dayton-area quarry that was used to build St. Peter in Chains Cathedral. The limestone base, in turn, sits on 13 layers of oak timbers embedded in the bedrock. Despite the late start, work that summer went swiftly, the Ohio tower rising to 45 feet and its Covington twin to 75 feet.

Yet as the towers rose, the nation’s finances faltered. The Panic of 1857—which was kicked off by the collapse of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company, a large Cincinnati-based bank—drained the bridge company’s liquidity. Shinkle employed some creative financing to support a scaled-down workforce in 1858, but as war clouds gathered, the company could no longer sell stock and work was suspended.

Ultimately, it was the war itself that refocused attention on the bridge. When Cincinnati was threatened in 1862 by a Confederate force that had invaded Kentucky, Union troops scrambled to build a pontoon bridge alongside the hulking towers to fortify the northern Kentucky high ground. After the Confederates tested the Union’s defenses, they withdrew their forces that September and the Ohio Legislature did some scrambling of its own, reducing restrictive covenants that had raised design and cost issues. (Roebling would later note that “the great exigencies of the war, by the movement of troops and materials across the river, made the want of a permanent bridge all the more felt.”)

Shinkle used the rebel threat to attract enough capital to restart the project and bring Roebling back to town. The master engineer knew what he wanted this time: A more favorable contract that diminished the power of “the Cincinnati wharf-rats” and allowed him to hire more German workers—boatloads of them if the “wharf rats” went on strike. With the nation fully engulfed in war, labor was hard to come by; Germans, he said, “had proved their mettle.”

Even though he owned a wire factory in New Jersey, a shortage due to the war forced Roebling to buy most of the bridge’s wire rope from a manufacturer in Manchester, England, which he said was stronger than anything made in America. With the Civil War playing havoc with the economy, the English squeezed Roebling, raising the price and demanding payment in gold. The huge shipment of cable arrived in Cincinnati on September 10, 1865, to a joyous city still celebrating the end of the war.

It could be argued that E.F. Farrington, the project’s master carpenter, was the bridge’s bravest craftsman. He was the first to cross the river on the foot bridge, which was strung from the Ohio anchorage to the tower, transported by barge across the river, and hoisted over the Covington tower to the Kentucky anchorage. The three-foot-wide bridge swayed as just a few of his colleagues watched Farrington inch his way across and over the river. But word of Farrington’s daredevil crossing got out quickly and the foot bridge itself became a kind of 19th century amusement ride. Even though watchmen were placed at the entrance, Farrington wrote of several residents sneaking by, including a “fair and fat” Methodist preacher who scaled the ladder and began crawling on his hands and knees above the river before “the flesh gave out and he retired.”

Eventually, there would be 10,360 river crossings of cable—each one 12-and-a-half inches in diameter, containing 5,180 compressed wires—and in total weighing more than a million pounds. The cables were secured with 303 pairs of suspenders fastened at five-foot intervals. Roebling’s trademark diagonal stays added stability. Then came the wrought iron beams, each 39 feet in length, which supported the 600,000 feet of oak and pine flooring. Finally, rails were added for streetcars. Yes, streetcars.

For Roebling, 1864 had been an exhausting year. He fought a vicious cold while managing a restive workforce that was completing the towers. His wife, Joanna, died 600 miles away in Trenton, New Jersey, and his son, Washington, was in harm’s way as an officer in the Union Army. He was driven by his work and was on site each day, attending to every detail. Things got better in 1865 when Washington retired from the army and joined his father as assistant engineer. Talented in his own right, Washington had been a hero at the Battle of Gettysburg and pioneered use of the helium balloon as an observation tool during the war. Washington supervised the cable work and took over for his father when he departed to begin work on his next big commission in New York City.

Winter arrived with a ferocious punch shortly after that warm December Sunday when half the city had promenaded for the first time on the bridge deck. Ice floes prevented the ferries from running, reminding everyone how the winter of 1857 had paralyzed the city. Leaders on both sides of the river consulted with Washington Roebling and decided to open the bridge earlier than expected on January 1, 1867.

Against a freezing wind, the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer reported, a procession of several horse-drawn wagons bearing Roebling, Shinkle, and other local dignitaries left the city’s Sixth Street stables and paraded through the streets before joining Menter’s and Heidel’s bands at the riverfront. The teams crossed the bridge into Covington and paraded through its streets before returning to the Ohio side. The bridge was then thrown open to the masses—this time, permanently.

“If ever any person entertained doubts of the strength of the bridge, the extraordinary test applied to it yesterday should satisfy the most skeptical,” the newspaper reported. “Under immense weight, [it] appeared much stronger than when only a few workmen were engaged upon it.”

And it was beautiful, appreciated not only by the local population but by visitors too. When John Roebling brought a contingent of Brooklyn Bridge leaders to Cincinnati to view his work a year later, Thomas Kinsella, editor of The Brooklyn Eagle, was flabbergasted. “It broke upon us all at once—the stateliest and most splendid evidence of genius, enterprise, and skill it has ever been my lot to see,” he wrote.

As night fell and the New Year’s Day festivities wound down, the starless sky was illuminated by a brilliant meteor that coursed northwest to southeast, bathing the new bridge in a supernatural spotlight. “It left a beautiful streak of light through its whole course that remained for five minutes and then faded away into those misty wavelets, apparently as if moved by a gentle zephyr,” the Daily Enquirer proclaimed. Clearly, Roebling’s bridge was blessed.

The bridge over the Ohio was, briefly, the longest suspension bridge in the world, spanning 1,057 feet over the river and 2,252 feet between the two anchorages. The towers are 230 feet high and weigh 32,000 tons each. It cost about $1.8 million (which would amount to $30.6 million today) and took 10 years to build. Remarkably, only two workers died during the construction. When it opened it cost consumers three cents to cross, and a bit more if you were on horseback. It was originally painted Spanish brown but was repainted blue in 1976. It was the only way to cross the Ohio during the great flood of 1937. It began to “sing” in 1955 when the wooden deck was replaced with metal grating. And as every local schoolkid around here knows, it was the prototype for New York’s iconic Brooklyn Bridge.

Sadly, despite his drive and ambition, John Roebling lost his race against death and never saw the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge. Two years after bringing the New York delegation to view his Ohio River masterpiece, he died of tetanus after his foot was crushed in a barge accident at the Brooklyn site. The Covington & Cincinnati bridge, his son Washington once said, “is the favorite child of my father’s anticipations.” For us, it is a treasure that has survived the ages.

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