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Wheeling Suspension Bridge

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Wheeling Suspension Bridge: A Northern Panhandle Landmark

By JIM ROSS ∙ jross@statejournal.com

It's one of the few — if not the only — bridges in West Virginia that's older than the state itself.

If you're not familiar with it, the first drive across the steel deck, suspended by wires and cables from the original stone towers, can be a bit unnerving.

But the Wheeling Suspension Bridge is indeed a landmark in Wheeling and in the history of bridgebuilding worldwide.

"There are a lot of people that if they come here not knowing about it, they leave talking about it," said Olivia Litan, marketing director of the Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The bridge connects downtown Wheeling with the residential neighborhoods and commercial areas on Wheeling Island.

According to a history of the bridge written by Emory Kemp and posted on the website of the Ohio County Public Library, the Virginia General Assembly provided for the construction of a bridge at Wheeling by legislation enacted March 9, 1847. 

Two rival designers bid on the project: Charles Ellet Jr. and the now-more-famous John Roebling. Ellet's design, for a suspension bridge with the piers on the shores, won over Roebling's design.

The bridge opened in 1849. The original stone towers are still in use.

A windstorm in 1854 caused the collapse of much of the cables and bridge deck. The bridge was rebuilt, and from 1871-72 stay cables designed by Washington Roebling, John Roebling's son, gave the bridge its present appearance, Kemp wrote.

John Roebling designed the bridge bearing his name at Cincinnati and the Brooklyn Bridge.

About 30 years ago, the state spent about $2.4 million to repair the cables and anchorages and to rebuild the trusses and repair the bridge, Kemp wrote. The bridge was lighted in 1987.

Because of the bridge's history, light vehicle use and sidewalks on both sides of the roadway, it is a popular subject of photography among people visiting Wheeling.

"There are a lot of people that visit Wheeling and they'll take a walk on the bridge just to do it," said Dave Sada, bridge engineer for District 6 of the West Virginia Division of Highways. 

"It does need painted, and the lighting needs upgraded."

The bridge is "used very heavily by pedestrians," Sada said.

Structurally, the bridge is in fair condition with no major deficiencies, Sada said. It's often used as a detour when there's heavy traffic on the nearby Interstate 70 bridge, he said.

The Wheeling Suspension Bridge was built and rebuilt decades before the automobile was invented. Today it's recognized as the oldest suspension bridge used by modern vehicles.

Earlier this year, the bridge was closed for repairs after one of the diagonal cables snapped.

The bridge is posted with a two-ton weight limit and 50-foot spacing between vehicles, Sada said.

"I just wish people would obey the posting and spacing restrictions," he said.