Wheeling’s historic bridges span centuries

Photos by Scott McCloskey Longtime Wheeling Island Resident Bill Seabright clears grass, weeds and debris from the approach ramp on the island of the structure Monday.

WHEELING — As debate rages over the condition of area bridges and highways, a Wheeling historian is examining the legacy of the city’s well-known spans.

Jeanne Finstein presented a Wheeling 250 program on historic infrastructure Tuesday at the Ohio County Public Library in which she discussed the role of bridges in making Wheeling a transportation hub.

At the same time Tuesday, Wheeling City Council received a letter from Friends of Wheeling regarding the preservation of the currently closed Wheeling Suspension Bridge. Finstein, who signed the letter as the organization’s president, also read the message at the Lunch With Books session.

“We must maintain these important structures or we will lose them,” she told the library audience. “The bridge was designed to carry horses and wagons, not tour buses.”

Finstein noted that the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, which opened in 1849, is designated as a National Historic Landmark and a National Engineering Landmark.

“It is one of the world’s outstanding historic bridges,” she said.

The Wheeling 250 Committee organized a June celebration to mark the span’s 170th anniversary. But a week later, a tour bus crossed the bridge, forcing its temporary closure while crews make repairs and work on a solution to keep overweight loads off the historic span.

“A national and international treasure is in our backyard. It’s up to us to protect it for another 170 years,” she said.

At the time of its construction, the 1,100-foot span was the world’s longest clear-span suspension bridge, she said. It held that distinction until the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883.

Actual construction of the bridge began in the summer of 1848, with all materials produced in the city, she said. Charles Ellet Jr. designed the bridge; later he supervised reconstruction of the span after it collapsed in a violent storm. In 1872, diagonal stays, designed by Washington Roebling, were added.

When the bridge opened, the round-trip toll was 5 cents, comparable to $1.50 today, she said. The toll was 10 cents for a man on horseback and 15 cents for a horse-drawn wagon.

“Funeral processions were exempt from tolls,” she added.

Meanwhile, the area’s natural terrain of hills and waterways has posed challenges to constructing and maintaining the city’s infrastructure, she said, adding that abuse by motorists, neglect and lack of maintenance have endangered a number of bridges.

“It’s up to us to protect that legacy,” Finstein said.

The Stone Bridge, also known as the Monument Place Bridge, is the oldest bridge still in use in West Virginia, she said. Constructed in 1817, the three-span stone arch structure was the second bridge built by pioneer Moses Shepherd. Nearby, the Wheeling Creek/Elm Grove Bridge on W.Va. 88 opened in 1948.

Noah Zane built the first back channel bridge, connecting Wheeling Island to Bridgeport, in 1837. It was replaced in 1893 by the Bridgeport Bridge, which was demolished in 2011. Another replacement was constructed in 1998.

The nearby Aetnaville Bridge, over the Ohio River’s back channel, was built in 1890-91.The long-closed bridge is slated for demolition.

In East Wheeling, the Manchester Bridge, built in 1889, closed in the early 1990s and was demolished in 1996, she said. It was not replaced.

The Wheeling Terminal Railway Bridge, used by passenger and freight trains traveling between North Wheeling and Martins Ferry, opened in 1891 and was demolished in 1993.

The Steel Bridge, connecting 11th Street to Wheeling Island, also opened in 1891 and was demolished in 1962. One worker was killed in a partial collapse of the span in 1924, she said.

The Main Street Bridge, crossing Wheeling Creek between 16th and 20th streets, was built in 1891-92. It was the largest single-span, stone arch bridge in the country at the time of its construction, Finstein said.

The Chapline Street Bridge, also spanning Wheeling Creek in the same area, was built in 1942.

Finstein said the Interstate 70 Fort Henry Bridge, which opened in 1955, took four years to build. Construction of the I-470 Veterans Memorial Bridge started in 1975, but wasn’t finished until 1983.

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