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Our Rich History: 150 Years Young, the John A. Roebling Bridge comes to life on a cold, cloudy day

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John A. Roebling’s suspension bridge was finally completed and opened to vehicles on New Year’s Day, 1867. This woodcut shows the view from Covington looking toward the banks of the Ohio. Library of Congress.

John A. Roebling’s suspension bridge was finally completed and opened to vehicles on New Year’s Day, 1867. This woodcut shows the view from Covington looking toward the banks of the Ohio. Library of Congress.

By Stephen Enzweiler
Special to the NKyTribune

Part 2: Roebling’s Bridge Comes to Life

On the cold morning of Tuesday, January 1, 1867, a grand procession of carriages assembled outside the offices of the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge Company on Greenup Street in Covington. Important businessmen, engineers, and government officials came together that morning to open the newly completed Covington and Cincinnati suspension bridge to vehicular traffic. The new bridge, with its massive stone towers, gently curving tramway and elegant array of suspension cables, had been opened to pedestrians the month before. At the time, additional trusses were still needed to prepare the roadway. But by Christmas, the major work was done, and New Year’s Day was chosen as the day for the grand opening.

The morning had dawned cold and cloudy, with a raking north wind that held temperatures down well below freezing. Traces of snow still lingered in the frozen streets and side yards of Covington. The Ohio River had been frozen over for days, and ferryboats that normally shuttled people across the Ohio were shut down. Despite the wintry conditions, a large number of residents from both sides of the river were out enjoying the fine sport of ice skating at the recently opened Covington and Newport Skating Park, better known as the Licking River. Emily Warren Roebling, wife of bridge engineer Washington Roebling and daughter-in-law of the suspension bridge’s designer, John A. Roebling, was one of the first to try the new ice the previous evening with her friend, local resident Lucy Ann Leathers Burdsall.

Cincinnati’s pontoon bridge spanning the Ohio River during the Civil War. This woodcut from the September 27, 1862 issue of Harper’s Weekly shows the uncompleted stone tower on the Cincinnati side. Library of Congress.

Cincinnati’s pontoon bridge spanning the Ohio River during the Civil War. This woodcut from the September 27, 1862 issue of Harper’s Weekly shows the uncompleted stone tower on the Cincinnati side. Library of Congress.

Emily and Lucy had been friends ever since the Roeblings first moved to Cincinnati in 1865. Lucy came from one of the most prominent families in Northern Kentucky. Her father was John Leathers, a prosperous landowner and Kentucky state representative who owned vast, sprawling tracts of land encompassing both sides of what is now Dixie Highway in Ft. Mitchell. For two years, the two women watched as iron, stone and wood rose from the muddy banks of the Ohio to fill the sky. For Emily Roebling especially – she was a budding engineer in her own right – the bridge was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. From their vantage point on the skating ice that evening, the two ladies had a clear view of the majestic new bridge reaching across the frozen river, illuminated in the evening lights of the city.

At eleven o’clock precisely, the procession of carriages began to move. In the lead carriage rode Amos Shinkle, president of the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge Company, the man many regarded as the main force behind the building of the bridge. Born in 1818, Shinkle was Northern Kentucky’s foremost philanthropist and business leader for much of the nineteenth century. He established a coal business, built steamboats, held the rank of colonel in the Kentucky Home Guards during the 1862 Siege of Cincinnati, founded the Children’s Home of Northern Kentucky, was involved in the First National Bank and Trust Company, served on the board of Cincinnati’s Wesleyan Female College, and in 1856 became the major stockholder and president of the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge Company.

BRIDGE CAPTIONS HERE

View in 1865 from the top of the Covington tower looking at the nearly completed Cincinnati tower, with Cincinnati in the background. Library of Congress.

In the carriage with Shinkle rode 28-year-old Washington Roebling and his wife Emily. Washington had been appointed chief engineer the previous year by his father, John A. Roebling, who was in New York to begin work on the Brooklyn Bridge project. In the carriage behind them rode the Bridge Company’s vice president and the assistant engineers. Then came the carriage of the bridge directors, then members of the Covington City Council, with horsemen bringing up the rear. In side streets and along the main avenues, private carriages of ordinary citizens of Covington waited patiently for their own chance to cross.

For the people of Covington and Cincinnati, the new suspension bridge had been a long time coming. For much of the area’s early history, getting from one side of the river to the other had been accomplished by ferries. The idea to span the Ohio with a grand bridge was first proposed in 1815, when business leaders realized the need to connect the two cities. But discussions didn’t prompt any action until 1829, when the Kentucky Legislature finally granted a charter to build one. Impetus for a bridge was renewed in 1839, when it was proposed that a bridge be built to improve commercial and economic ties between Lexington and Cincinnati. But civic leaders in both cities ultimately prioritized the improvement of the Covington and Lexington Turnpike (today’s Dixie Highway), rather than building a bridge.

 Amos Shinkle (1818-1892) about the time of the bridge’s completion. Courtesy of Kenton County Public Library.

Amos Shinkle (1818-1892) about the time of the bridge’s completion. Courtesy of Kenton County Public Library.

But disagreements between investors, commercial interests and politicians continued to dog the bridge project. Finally in 1846, an ambitious bridge engineer named John A. Roebling submitted a first design. “Two spans are proposed,” he wrote to the Covington promoters, “which will meet in the center of the river upon a gigantic stone pier of 200 feet high.” But commercial shipping interests and steamboat operators were mortified at the idea of a massive stone obstruction in the river’s middle, and the Ohio legislature rejected it. Charles Ellet, a competing designer, proposed “a single arch, spanning the whole river at once, and giving ample space above, the navigation will be fully protected; and there exists no other interest that has a right to object.” But Ellet’s proposal was also rejected.

Finally, in 1856, Roebling submitted a new design with a 1,057-foot span and no central pier.

“Highly ornamented masonry may be built,” he wrote in his proposal. “The general impression should be that of simplicity, massiveness and strength.” After careful review by all the parties, the plan was deemed acceptable, and work began constructing the Covington tower in September 1856. But all work stopped completely when the economic Panic of 1857 swept the nation, curtailing all funding.

Emily Warren Roebling (1843-1903). Herself an engineer, she succeeded her father-in-law, John Roebling, and her husband, Washington Roebling, as the lead field engineer who completed the Brooklyn Bridge. Library of Congress/Everett Collection.

Emily Warren Roebling (1843-1903). Herself an engineer, she succeeded her father-in-law, John Roebling, and her husband, Washington Roebling, as the lead field engineer who completed the Brooklyn Bridge. Library of Congress/Everett Collection.

Ironically, it was war that reignited interest in finishing the bridge. The two pontoon bridges that were the main arteries of transport for Federal troops and supplies across the Ohio were proving insufficient, and by 1863, investors came to believe that finishing the bridge was a good use of capital. Additional stock was sold, and work began again. By 1865, the two towers were completed, and Roebling turned his attention to finishing the deck, flooring, stays and suspension.

As the bridge began to take shape, the populations of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky gazed on in wonder at the size and scope of the project. No one had ever seen anything like it before. The completed towers became the tallest man-made structures in the area. Amos Shinkle often came down to the river to admire the progress being made, as did Lucy Burdsall and Emily Roebling. The scale and beauty of it impressed everyone, especially John Roebling.

Lucy Ann Leathers Burdsall (1825-1873). Photo courtesy of Donna Kennedy.

Lucy Ann Leathers Burdsall (1825-1873). Photo courtesy of Donna Kennedy.

“The size and magnitude of this work far surpasses any expectations I had formed of it,” he wrote in 1865. “It is the highest thing in this country; the towers are so high that a person’s neck aches looking up at them. It will take me a week to get used to the dimensions of everything around here.” On December 1, 1866, the bridge finally opened to pedestrians. More than 46,000 crossed that day, with nearly 120,000 the following day. One month later, the bridge finally opened to vehicles in a long-awaited grand ceremony.

Now, as the procession of carriages clopped across the arcing roadway, Amos Shinkle could look out the window of his carriage and see the thousands of people as they lined both shores of the Ohio River. To his right, people skating on the Licking River watched from afar. Behind him he could hear the joyful strains of Mentor’s and Heidel’s brass bands playing amid a stream of shouts and cheering that seemed to go on forever. When the procession at last reached the Ohio side, it was met by “a much larger procession” comprised of the investors and employees of the various stockholding companies. The two processions merged and became one, then reversed course and marched back over the bridge and through the principal streets of Covington. Within the next four years, nearly 4.5 million people would cross Roebling’s suspension bridge.

 The finished bridge as the first carriages to cross would have seen it on New Year’s Day, 1867. Library of Congress.

The finished bridge as the first carriages to cross would have seen it on New Year’s Day, 1867. Library of Congress.

The John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge held the title of the “longest suspension bridge in the world” until the Brooklyn Bridge was finished in 1889. It has had improvements and modifications over the years, aimed at keeping up with the changing times. In 1898, the structure was renovated: the roadway was widened, trusses added and towers reinforced. Sidewalks now wrapped around the outside of the towers. That was also the year the first coat of blue paint appeared, replacing the original rust brown color. In 1901, electric lighting was added.

Over its 150-year lifetime, the suspension bridge seemed to attain an almost mythical reputation for its ability to not only endure, but to prevail against nature herself. Floods of biblical proportions have swept through the Ohio Valley, most notably in 1883, 1913, and 1937. Even as the cities of Covington and Cincinnati were submerged beneath destructive floodwaters, people could look up and still see their bridge high above the waters majestically spanning the river. Today, it has become more than simply a means of transportation from one riverbank to the other; it endures as a symbol of hope for the future of our two cities.

Perhaps the significance of the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge to our communities was best summed up by John Roebling himself in June 1867: “Thus united by strong cords of wire, we all fervently hope, for the sake of a common country, that these two great Commonwealths will forever continue to use this National highway as a perpetual link of mutual interests and amicable relations, commercially, as well as socially and politically.”

Stephen Enzweiler is a writer and journalist. He has been a columnist for the Kentucky Enquirer, the Oxford Citizen, and was a senior editor at Y’all Magazine. He is the author of “Oxford in the Civil War: Battle for a Vanquished Land (2010).

 View of the bridge from the Covington side in 1868 with its toll booth. Tolls were still being collected as late as 1963. Library of Congress.

View of the bridge from the Covington side in 1868 with its toll booth. Tolls were still being collected as late as 1963. Library of Congress.

The bridge has persevered through the most historic floods in the history of the Ohio Valley, including this view of the bridge during the Great Flood of 1937. Courtesy of Kenton County Public Library.

The bridge has persevered through the most historic floods in the history of the Ohio Valley, including this view of the bridge during the Great Flood of 1937. Courtesy of Kenton County Public Library.

Featured picture: The bridge in 1907. The 1898-9 renovation widened the deck rom 36’ to 48’, which required the sidewalks to be rerouted around the outside of the towers. Library of Congress.

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3 Comments

  1. Ken says:

    FANTASTIC article Steve!! Where can I get hold of the 1st article to read – l missed that one???

    • Judy Clabes says:

      Go to nkytribune.com and use search function for Roebling. It was written last Monday by Paul Tencotte. Let me know if there’s a problem. Thanks for your interest.

  2. Ralph WolffRalph Wolff says:

    Would be interested in knowiing where the writer found his info on Emily’s friendship with Lucy Burdsall. Burdsall family lore, perhaps?
    Not aware of any information about Emily Rowling’s time in NKY.

    Ralph Wolff

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