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Our Rich History: Roebling Suspension Bridge Exhibit celebrates 150 year history at Cinci library

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By James Mainger
Special to NKyTribune

A new exhibit at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County’s Main Library, “A Dream Come True, a Song Well Sung: the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge at 150” casts its gaze on the story behind one of our region’s most iconic and unique structures on the sesquecentennial year of its opening. Built while Civil War battles raged, the bridge has a story with themes mirroring the history of the United States and the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky region: a brilliant immigrant engineer; enterprising businessmen; rapid innovations in science and technology; professional rivalry; and a struggle to find common ground amidst conflict and distrust.

The exhibit brings this story of the bridge from dream to icon with plans, photographs, documents, antique postcards and more from the collections of the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County, the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, the Kenton County Public Library, and the Covington-Cincinnati Bridge Committee. The winning photographs from the 2017 Roebling Bridge Photo Contest are also on display. The exhibit will run from now until November 12 in the Joseph S. Stern, Jr. Cincinnati Room, third floor of the Main Library, 800 Vine Street, Cincinnati. The hours of the Joseph S. Stern Cincinnati Room are Monday – Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday, 1 – 5 p.m. See also the website

Diary of My Journey from Muehlhausen via Bremen to the United States of North America in the year 1831 by John A. Roebling. Roebling Press, 1931.

Motivated by idealism and enthusiasm for the future of the growing United States, John Roebling migrated from Germany to western Pennsylvania, not to be an engineer, for which he had studied, but to farm in a utopian community. Always meticulous, he kept a detailed diary of his travel experiences for the benefit of other Germans hoping to immigrate. Roebling would soon discover that farming did not suit him, and he found his way back to an engineering career in his new homeland.

Cincinnati Directory, 1819.

Interest in the construction of a bridge across the Ohio River connecting Cincinnati with its Northern Kentucky neighbors began early as demonstrated by the speculations reported by Oliver Farnsworth, publisher of Cincinnati’s first city directory. Reports of discussions of an Ohio River bridge came in the writings of Dr. Daniel Drake, his brother Benjamin Drake and Edward Mansfield. The extent of these discussions grew rapidly, generating both support and opposition.

Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 6 February 1846.

In the 1830s through the 1850s, support for the building of a bridge was stronger on the Kentucky side of the river, given that the economic benefits of easier access to the larger Cincinnati market were more apparent to Kentuckians. Some Cincinnatians saw Northern Kentucky as an economic competitor. There were also great concerns that a bridge would create physical obstructions to transportation on the river. This newspaper report on a resolution passed by Cincinnati City Council on February 6, 1846 clearly illustrates these fears. After two attempts at persuading both Ohio’s and Kentucky’s legislatures to approve a bridge company, success came in 1850.

Report and Plan for a Wire Suspension Bridge, Proposed to be Erected over the Ohio River at Cincinnati, 1846

After winning acclaim in the 1840s for building several canal viaducts and a roadway in Pennsylvania, John Roebling submitted this first design for an Ohio River suspension bridge to the Covington-Cincinnati Bridge Co. Although an innovative design, the plan’s central pier in the middle of the river failed to win over those who feared a bridge would impede steamboat traffic.

Jesse Brinley. Squirrel Hunter’s March. Cincinnati, Oh. John Church, Jr., 1863.

Chosen by the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge Co. to construct the Ohio River Bridge, John Roebling began work erecting the stone towers on opposite sides on the Ohio in 1857, but a major recession brought the work to a standstill by the eve of the Civil War. The war, however, would be the bridge’s salvation when a Confederate advance into the region in 1862 showed that a bridge was needed to bring troops and supplies over the Ohio to counter it. This cover from a locally published popular music score depicts volunteer troops, “squirrel hunters”, crossing the Ohio on a temporary pontoon bridge right next to the partly built towers of the all but abandoned suspension bridge.

View of Cincinnati, 1866. (Source: Library of Congress)
This photograph is one of the four parts of a panorama taken from the south (Covington) tower during construction in 1866. The cables have been spun between the towers and a small suspended walkway had been installed, permitting workers to cross the river without coming down from the towers.

Combined photographs from 1867 (PLCH) and 1907 (LC)

Major rebuilding of the Suspension Bridge became necessary by 1895 in order to allow it to carry the added weight of the new electric streetcars. Wilhelm Hildebrand, who had worked for the Roeblings on the Brooklyn Bridge, designed and carried out a reconstruction, which not only strengthened the bridge but also significantly altered its appearance. These two views, one of the original bridge and the other of the bridge after the 1895 reconstruction, provide a comparison and highlight the changes. The reconstructed bridge has an extra set of cables, a higher deck, a more elaborate truss framework on the deck, round tower tops, and a walkway around the towers. The rounded domes on top of the towers were built to house the additional saddles for the added steel cables. These were replaced in the 1990s by turrets which closely resemble the original ones from 1867.

Automobiles on Covington side of Suspension Bridge, January 28, 1937 by Betty T. Ross. (Source: Public Library of Cincinnati. Not in Public Domain)

The starkest and most memorable pictures of the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge come from the times of major floods on the Ohio River. For the most part, the bridge remained accessible to the public during these times and many memorable pictures exist of crowds watching the destructive powers of the flood waters from the safety of the suspension bridge. This photograph from the 1937 flood reminds us that the suspension bridge was the only bridge to remain open over an 800 mile stretch of the Ohio River and served as a vital supply lifeline for disaster relief.

Painting support cables [wire stays] KY Post, July 1, 1975 (Source: Kenton County Public Library)

After owning and managing the suspension bridge for 86 years, the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge Company sold it to the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1953. To protect the bridge as a viable transportation route and to preserve it for future use, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet has provided continuous maintenance on the bridge, taking steps to strengthen the deck, painting it regularly, and regulating the weight of the vehicles permitted on it. Working in conjunction with a private non-profit, the Covington-Cincinnati Bridge Committee, Kentucky has provided enhancements to the bridge’s appearance, such as nighttime lighting and flags on the towers. It also paid for replacing the domed tops of the towers with gold-leaved turrets which restored some of the bridge’s original appearance.

Suspension Bridge by Edward Timothy Hurley (Source: Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County)

The John A. Roebling Bridge has served as an icon for the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky region since its construction, growing more into that role with each passing year. Its beauty and character have inspired some artists to depict its essence. In Cincinnati: Prints from the Etchings of E.T. Hurley, this etching was accompanied with a poem by Hurley expressing his sense of the bridge representing the embodiment of its creator’s vision.

One stanza reads:
You may see the outlines
Of cities across a river,
And a commercial bridge
Joining them together;
But I see there, cable-swung,
A dream come true, a song well sung.

James Mainger is a librarian in the History Department of the Main branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County in downtown Cincinnati.

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