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A bridge to history …

Nov. 3, 2011

Last year, while covering the National Private Truck Council’s annual meeting in Cincinnati, OH, I literally stumbled upon a piece of history spanning the Ohio River: the John A. (for “Augustus”) Roebling suspension bridge, which links Cincinnati and Covington, KY.

Ah, but why should such a bridge – despite its historical import (more on that later) – be of any interest to truckers, you ask?

Simply put, the entire reason this civil engineering landmark – which would form the template for the Roebling family’s more famous (and final) creation, the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City – came into being centered on just one thing: the need to find a better, faster way to move freight. [You can view more photos of the bridge by clicking here.]

Plans for the then-named Covington and Cincinnati Bridge (it was renamed in Roebling’s honor in 1984) got the green light in 1849 due to the “unpredictability” of the Ohio River’s currents, which often slowed ferry transport or suspended it altogether. A bridge capable of handing heavy horse-drawn wagons, then, would help not only speed up commerce but provide a more dependable pathway as well.

Freight would then be able to move back and forth, hither and yon, there and back again (a Hobbit’s holiday … Oh my! An unexpected Tolkien tangent!) with predictable and relative ease.

[Here's some of the sights and sounds of the Roebling suspension bridge, which was undergoing a thorough cleaning when I visited it in 2010.]

Of course, the Civil War significantly delayed construction of the Cincinnati-Covington bridge, so it wasn’t completed until late 1866, opening for trade and foot traffic in 1867. It’s also interesting to note, too, that it was a toll bridge until 1963 (and how much got collected over that nearly 96 year span, one can only wonder.)

It is testament to John Roebling’s (seen at left) engineering genius that, not only does his bridge still perform its duties nearly 145 years after it opened for business, he overbuilt its stone pillars and cable support towers to such a degree that can handle 30 ton trucks with ease to this day.

Sadly, fate had unkind plans for both John and Washington Roebling.

John’s eldest son, Washington Roebling (at left), joined him in his engineering endeavors after Washington served (and somehow survived) four years of combat with Army of the Potomac in the Civil War; fighting from the Second Battle of Bull Run through Gettysburg and U.S. Grant’s final campaign against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia; a campaign that effectively ended that war when Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 7, 1865. (Washington Roebling ended the war a Colonel, in part due to his bravery under fire.)

Father and son started working together to finish the Cincinnati-Covington bridge, then turned to the ambitious Brooklyn suspension bridge in late 1867 – a bridge all the skeptics said would be impossible to build.

However, John died shortly after he started surveying work on the project in 1869, following a freak accident. While intent on the survey work, an arriving ferry crushed all the toes on one of his feet, forcing them to be amputated. He died from a tetanus infection 24 days later.

Washington took up his father’s mantle, but in the process of fighting fires that broke out in the bridge’s wooden caissons in 1870, he suffered from decompression sickness, also known as “the bends,” which caused brain damage and shattered his health.

Though he remained the bridge project’s chief engineer – finishing it in 1883 with the help of his first wife Emily Warren Roebling – and lived until 1926, Washington battled the aftereffects of the accident for the rest of his life.

Yet the bridges the Roebling’s built still stand today … and still carry freight. Not a bad legacy, if you ask me.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr 1 | Senior Editor

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