Wheeling Suspension Bridge’s popularity endures

Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register photo by Shelley Hanson
Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register photo by Shelley Hanson

WHEELING, W.Va. — Though it’s been hanging around for 166 years, people still get a kick of out seeing the Wheeling Suspension Bridge.

Frank O’Brien, executive director of the Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau, said while tourists generally do not drive long distances just to see the span, once visitors lay their eyes on it they are impressed with the historic structure.

“We feature it in every piece of marketing we do,” O’Brien said. “It’s definitely a main attraction for downtown Wheeling. West Virginia Independence Hall and the Suspension Bridge are definitely in the Top 5 things to see down here.”

The original Wheeling Suspension Bridge was constructed in 1849, but a storm in 1854 damaged it beyond repair leading to it being rebuilt in 1860 – just in time for the start of the Civil War in 1861. The bridge connects the downtown to Wheeling Island.

O’Brien said when the bridge was rebuilt, stay cables were added to keep it stable. One of the stay cable anchors is located in the basement of the Capitol Theatre, which was built in 1921.

“The cable goes through a hole in the wall,” he added. “People who study engineering know all know about it, and around the world, I’m guessing.”

Sean Duffy, Ohio County Public Library programming coordinator and an author of four history books related to Wheeling, said the bridge, designed by Charles Ellet Jr., is arguably the most significant structure in the city of Wheeling.

“The Wheeling Suspension bridge was a marvel of engineering and (at 1,010 feet) the longest clear span bridge in the world when it opened in 1849,” Duffy said.

“It helped make Wheeling a transportation hub and helped make American engineers world leaders in long span bridge design. Our bridge remains the most iconic and recognizable symbol of Wheeling, and it is the oldest suspension bridge in the country still in use today.”

During the past couple of years, a couple of the stay cables have snapped, forcing the closure of the bridge until they were fixed. During a routine inspection last week, one structural engineer commented the bridge was in “pretty good shape.”

The West Virginia Department of Transportation is planning a major, $8.5 million rehabilitation of the bridge, which is expected to occur sometime in 2016 and last for a year or more. The bridge is not just a tourist attraction – it is used daily by motorists and pedestrians.

“The Suspension Bridge is an iconic representation of the development of the rest of our country. It was our gateway to go west,” O’Brien said. “I’ve walked people down to the bridge itself. If they don’t know about it, they see it while they’re here and get a kick out of it.”

According to the Smithsonian Museum, the bridge is the oldest long-span (more than 1,000 feet) that still has vehicles using it.

The bridge was not only significant to the city’s growth when it was first built in 1849, but later to allow for the movement of troops and supplies in and out of the city during the Civil War. Camp Carlisle, which was situated between the current Bridge Park Pool area and Aetnaville Bridge span, served as a base for Union soldiers between 1861-64. A historical marker is erected where the camp was situated near Bridge Park.

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