Who Keeps the Roebling Suspension Bridge Beautiful?

An unsung group of volunteers is responsible for the shining decorative lights and flags keeping the iconic Roebling Suspension Bridge looking its best.
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Illustration by Kelsey Coburn / Photograph by Andreykr via stock.adobe.com

The Roebling Suspension Bridge has connected Covington to downtown Cincinnati for 157 years, and one group has kept it looking iconic for the next 157 years and beyond. While the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) handles construction and maintenance of the historic bridge, the Covington-Cincinnati Suspension Bridge Committee (CCSBC) has taken up the mantle for its decorative aspects since 1975. That includes the 76 “necklace” lights along the spun cables, the bulbs that shine on its towers and down to the riverbank piers, and the flags flying atop its towers. “I don’t think most people realize that just a small, little group of volunteers are the ones that are making it look so beautiful,” says Sherry Roth, the CCSBC’s president.

Sherry, who joined the committee in 2009 with her husband and current treasurer Ken, says it’s impossible to overstate the significance of the bridge: “A lot of people don’t know about how important the bridge was and how radical it was when it was first built.” Adds former CCSBC president Ralph G. Wolff, “Part of the engineering significance is the procedure for spinning the cables, the individual wires that are parallel. And the method [Roebling] devised to spin those cables is still used to build suspension bridges today.”

When the bridge opened in 1867, it was the longest in the world and the first to span the Ohio River. Its chief engineer and designer, John A. Roebling, oversaw the first leg of construction in 1856, which was fraught with financial, political, and war-related delays. His son, Washington, took over the last two years of construction while he surveyed the East River in New York to design the Brooklyn Bridge. “I liked the story of how Roebling brought some people from New York to Cincinnati when they were trying to decide whether they wanted to have Roebling do their bridge, and they were coming down the river on a boat when they came around the bend and the bridge came into view. The New Yorkers were instantly swayed. They said, ‘You’re the guy,’ ” says Dave Akers, CCSBC light committee chair. The Covington-Cincinnati bridge, renamed to honor its architect in 1983, now carries about 8,100 vehicles per day and is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks.

CCSBC Light Committee members are responsible for maintaining the decorative “necklace” lights along the Roebling Suspension Bridge.

Photograph courtesy Covington-Cincinnati Suspension Bridge Committee

More than a century and a half since it opened, the work continues to keep the Roebling Suspension Bridge looking tip-top. Ken also works on refurbishing lights with a team of half a dozen volunteers, mostly retired engineers, out of a brick maintenance building on the Covington side of the river. “We basically disassemble all the fixtures, clean up the hardware, we do powder coat for the paint,” he says. All of the materials and labor are funded by donor dollars, and the CCSBC contracts with professional steeplejacks and electricians to get the lights back up there. When KYTC repainted the bridge in 2010, every light had to come off the bridge’s necklace. “The refurbishment of those necklace lights was a big effort,” says Akers. “And we’re pretty happy with the way it’s turned out so far.”

Photograph courtesy Mark Dunkelman

The group has also since replaced older bulbs along the bridge with LED lights that have an advertised 10-year lifespan. “We went through a lot of trials and tribulations with regards to reflector geometry, color temperature, the elements, the type of lighting that was used—we got a bit engineering crazy on all that stuff,” says Light Committee volunteer Mark Dunkelman.

They’ve had some fun with the lights during special events, too, like when Great American Ball Park hosted the MLB All-Star Game in 2015. “We took one of the necklace lights and we painted it red and we kind of got crazy with it—put a top hat on it and we put it on the bridge during the All-Star week. Then it made a few headlines around town.” Then there’s changing the flags about twice a year. “There’s no elevator inside the bridge. We climb those stairs on the outside,” Ken says—he’s counted over 100 steps on the open staircase to get up there. Typically, replacing flags is a straightforward process, but they’ve employed pro steeplejacks to get to the difficult-to-reach hardware before.

Volunteers also replace the flags atop the Roebling Suspension Bridge’s two towers about twice a year.

Photograph courtesy Covington-Cincinnati Suspension Bridge Committee

Besides their work on the bridge’s cosmetic elements, the CCSBC also raises awareness of the Roebling’s legacy. Those efforts once included Roeblingfest, an annual educational event featuring tours and art celebrating the legacy of the bridge held on the banks of the river until 2017. Today, they offer educational talks at local libraries, rotary clubs, and other orgs. Before COVID, volunteers led walking tours of the bridge, and the team had to get creative when the pandemic shut down live walk-alongs: “We created the QR code stops on the bridge so people could actually give themselves a tour when they were on the bridge,” Sherry says. The tour is also available on roeblingbridge.org for anyone to access anytime, anywhere. The annual CCSBC Photo Contest, which encourages amateurs and pros alike to snap shots of the bridge, is also coming back this summer.

The CCSBC is always looking for new members to support their work, especially folks who can get the word out about their mission. Though donations and memberships fund the work and materials, the volunteers offer their time and talent for free because of their passion for preserving this local landmark’s legacy. “When I was younger, I think that Tyler Davidson Fountain was sort of the ‘face of Cincinnati.’ But I would say in recent years, it’s the bridge,” Sherry says. “When you hear of Cincinnati, it’s almost always showing the bridge … and I’m really happy about that.”

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