Along with the Carew Tower and the Tyler-Davidson Fountain, it’s one of Cincinnati’s most important and recognized symbols and it’s the one that figuratively and literally connects Cincinnati with Northern Kentucky.
When it opened on January 1, 1867, as the Covington and Cincinnati Suspension Bridge it was an engineering marvel and the longest suspension bridge in the world with a span of 1,057 feet.
It may be hard to imagine now, but before the bridge was completed, crossing the Ohio River was a bit of an ordeal, with ferries being the only option. Today,one of those still remains 8 miles west of Downtown. Known as the Anderson Ferry, it has been in continuous operation since 1817, when dozens of competitors dotted the river bank.
However, with commerce growing on both sides of the river in the mid-1800s, plans for a bridge between Covington and Cincinnati began to take shape. In 1846, the first charter for the bridge was granted to the Covington-Cincinnati Bridge Company by the Kentucky Legislature, as most of the river lay in the Bluegrass State. However, Ohio had to approve the project as well, which took several years as ferry operators and steamboat companies lobbied against the plan. Additionally, there was concern that a bridge would make it easier for slaves to escape to Ohio, a free state. Abolitionists, on the other hand, were upset that members of the Kentucky half of the bridge partnership contained slave owners and objected to the arrangement on moral grounds.
Further adding to the trepidation was the 1854 collapse of a suspension bridge, the kind proposed for the Ohio River, in Newport across the much narrower Licking River. Bringing in an expert on the Covington-Cincinnati Bridge quelled the fears of most and in 1856, construction began under the supervision of master civil engineer John A. Roebling who designed the entire structure as well. His previous efforts included a suspension bridge over Niagara Falls and Roebling’s Delaware Aqueduct, still in use today, which opened in 1849 and connects Minisink Ford, NY with Lackawaxen, PA.
The project in Cincinnati would use many of Roebling’s proprietary construction methods including the use of strong wire cables of his own design, which made such a large suspension bridge possible. His inventiveness continued in Cincinnati as several issues arose including the problem of water collecting in the excavation pits. Instead of bringing in more and larger equipment, though, Roebling developed a new method for keeping the water out.
Work was halted in 1857 after an economic downturn but resumed a year later. The next stumbling block was the Civil War which broke out in 1861 and temporarily stopped work on the bridge. At first, it was feared a bridge would make invasion from the South easier but that view was soon reversed and people realized that easy access to the South through Kentucky would be strategically advantageous, especially as the Union crept closer to victory. Subsequently, funds poured into the bridge company.
After the war, work continued in earnest and on December 1,1866, the first pedestrians crossed the bridge. Over 160,000 people crossed the span in two days, with the official opening coming on January 1, 1867. It cost individuals a penny to cross, a horse 25 cents while a buggy added 15 cents to the toll.
Over the years many modifications were made. Fortunately, the towers were designed and built to hold much more weight than the kind it saw when it opened and in 1896, more cables were added to allow for heavier loads.
The Covington-Cincinnati Bridge Company sold the bridge to the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1953 and continued to collect tolls until the Brent Spence Bridge, carrying I-75/I-71 opened a half mile downstream. In 1975 the bridge was named a National Historic Landmark. It remains a vital and popular thoroughfare well into the 21st century.
Roebling went on to design and build the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, and used many of the construction methods he employed here in Cincinnati.