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Our Rich History: The John A. Roebling Bridge — 150 years young this month, THE symbol of our region

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By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

Part 1: John A. Roebling, a “Practical Dreamer”

On January 1, 1867, the Covington and Cincinnati Suspension Bridge was officially opened to vehicular traffic. Renamed the John A. Roebling Bridge in 1983 to memorialize its chief engineer, the bridge has become THE symbol of our region. Its grand Romanesque architecture draws our eyes both vertically and horizontally—vertically to its more than 200-feet-tall piers (the tallest structures in the region when they were built), and horizontally to its graceful suspension cables connecting the shorelines of Cincinnati and Covington.

John Roebling

John Roebling (Photo courtesy of Kenton County Public Library, Covington)

John A. Roebling (1806-1869) was the epitome of what it means to be a “practical dreamer.” It might seem contradictory to use the adjective “practical” and the noun “dreamer” in the same context to describe someone, but the phrase perfectly describes the innovation and genius of Roebling.

Born in Mühlhausen, Prussia (now Germany), John Roebling graduated in civil engineering from the Royal Polytechnic Institute in Berlin. There, the great philosopher and professor, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), befriended him, instilling within him a love for freedom and for the United States. Also at the institute, Roebling was first introduced to all types of bridge construction, including suspension bridges made with iron-chain cables.

After graduation, Roebling worked as a civil engineer for the Prussian government on roadways and bridges. However, he felt restrained by Prussian bureaucracy, and increasingly sought freedom and democracy for himself and others. In May 1831, one month shy of his 25th birthday, he set sail on the August Eduard for the United States, leading a group of colonists to Saxonburg, north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

 Iron Rope. Source: Wire Engineering: A Distinctive Roebling Service. 3rd reprint. Trenton, NJ: John A. Roebling’s Sons Co., 1941, p. 13.

Iron Rope. Source: Wire Engineering: A Distinctive Roebling Service. 3rd reprint. Trenton, NJ: John A. Roebling’s Sons Co., 1941, p. 13.

At first, John Roebling engaged in farming at Saxonburg. And then the momentous year of 1837 changed his life’s course forever. In that year, a series of events converged to reawaken his love of civil engineering. First, he felt compelled to pursue a more remunerative career on behalf of his newly-born son, Washington Augustus, as well as to help support the widow and two children of his recently-deceased brother, Karl. Second, he became a naturalized American citizen. And third, he accepted a job with the Pennsylvania Canal.

The Pennsylvania Canal connected Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. In order to traverse the Allegheny Mountains, too tall to cross with locks and dams and too wide to tunnel under, the canal utilized a “portage railway.” The Allegheny Portage Railroad was located between Hollidaysburg and Johnstown. It consisted of a railroad line, as well as a series of ten inclined planes, whereby canal passengers and freight were transported up and down the mountainsides between the eastern and western sections of the canal. The inclined plane system used “hawsers,” of about 7-to-8-inch circumference hemp ropes, to both lift and lower the incline cars.

The hemp ropes were subject to breakage, however, as were wire chains in suspension bridge construction. Roebling personally witnessed an accident on the portage railway that killed two men. Convinced that twisted strands of iron wire rope would prove more suitable and safer than hemp hawsers for inclined railways or than iron chains for suspension bridges, Roebling dedicated himself to producing the strongest and most malleable wire rope possible.

 Inclined Plane Railways. Source: Steinman, D.B. The Builders of the Bridge: The Story of John Roebling and His Son. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1950, opposite p. 100.

Inclined Plane Railways. Source: Steinman, D.B. The Builders of the Bridge: The Story of John Roebling and His Son. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1950, opposite p. 100.

In 1842, Roebling patented his own version of a strong yet malleable wire rope. In the same year, he successfully demonstrated the use of wire rope on the Allegheny Portage Railroad. Literally and figuratively, Roebling’s wire rope helped to connect our world in novel ways, eventually being used for suspension bridges, inclined railways, elevators, and telephone communications. Roebling became a successful “practical dreamer.”

Roebling’s engineering feats are too numerous to list. However, several projects helped to define his career. In 1848, he built a suspension aqueduct at Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, which you can still visit today. In 1855, he completed a two-level suspension bridge across the Niagara River, the first suspension bridge to ever successfully carry a railroad. The first level of the bridge was for pedestrians and carriages, and the second level carried the New York Central, as well as the Great Western Railroad.

No wonder that Amos Shinkle (1818-92) of the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge Company called upon Roebling in 1856 to solve some thorny problems that opponents to the Ohio River bridge proposal had presented:

The Niagara Suspension Bridge. Courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte.

The Niagara Suspension Bridge. Courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte.

Problem #1: Opponents of the bridge, including steamboat operators, worried that the bridge would impede Ohio River traffic, especially during high water when the stacks of their steamboats might hit the bridge floor. Roebling solved this problem by designing a suspension bridge high enough to prevent this from happening.

Problem #2: Steamboat operators and Cincinnati businessmen worried that bridge piers in the river would form ice jams behind them in winter. Then, when the ice would thaw, a rush of water would ensue, damaging and sinking boats at the Cincinnati harbor. Roebling solved this problem by proposing a suspension bridge that, in a normal pool of water, had its piers on the shorelines. This was true of the Roebling Bridge at the time it was built. The piers later became submerged in the river when high-lift dams raised the water level permanently.

Problem #3: Abolitionists and other opponents of slavery decried the fact that the bridge company was based in a slave state—Kentucky—and that the board of directors included some slave owners. They objected to the company using any Cincinnati street for their ramp, for both legal and moral reasons. So, the Ohio General Assembly required the company to buy land between Cincinnati streets in order to build their ramp.

Roebling’s dream that the bridge would connect directly with the perfectly-aligned north-south-bound streets of Greenup in Covington and of Walnut in Cincinnati, never came to pass. Sadly for Roebling, he could not overcome Problem #3, although he probably understood it better than anyone else. After all, he had immigrated to the United States to seek freedom for himself and others. In the present day, we are still struggling with this alignment issue, building a roundabout on the Cincinnati side, and a small park on the Covington end of the bridge.

The Covington and Cincinnati Suspension Bridge. Source: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 17, 1867.

The Covington and Cincinnati Suspension Bridge. Source: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 17, 1867.

But is the alignment problem really, after all, unfortunate?

Here’s an idea. Instead of trying to surmount the alignment problem, why don’t we simply embrace it and what it has to teach us historically about the awful institution of slavery? Adhering to one’s principles and acting morally sometimes produces small inconveniences. However, acting ethically and morally makes an important statement and, often, a lasting impact.

So, the next time that you cross the Roebling Bridge, remember how its alignment was related to the slavery issue. And like John Roebling himself, embrace the bridge, the opportunities of freedom, and the chance to be your own “practical dreamer.”

If you’d like to learn more about the bridge, please consult Don Tolzmann’s books entitled JOHN A. ROEBLING AND HIS SUSPENSION BRIDGE ON THE OHIO RIVER, as well as THE JOHN A. ROEBLING SUSPENSION BRIDGE. Both books are available for a New Year’s special price (until March 1, 2017) at 17% off, by visiting www.littlemiamibooks.com and using the code “NEWYEAR.” Also, learn more about the bridge and Covington by purchasing Tenkotte, Claypool and Schroeder, editors, GATEWAY CITY: COVINGTON, KENTUCKY, 1815-2015, now available for $10 (80% discount) at the Covington City Building at 20 West Pike Street.

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