Wheeling’s Main Street Stone Arch Bridge: Hidden in Plain Sight
To appreciate Wheeling’s architectural gems, one is typically advised to look up. This is generally good advice, but in some cases, one must look down, and under, and around — trees, shrubs, cables, street signs, utility poles and concrete abutments. Such is the case with the somewhat under-appreciated Main Street Stone Arch Bridge.
As a river town, Wheeling has been home to its share of interesting bridges, including famous ones, like our cherished marvel of engineering suspended over the Ohio and our durable little double stone arch in Elm Grove, the oldest bridge in the state.
But there is a third significant, yet less celebrated bridge in Wheeling — one that serves stoically and inconspicuously, despite spanning what is arguably the most myth-infused site in our myth-saturated town.
And today is an important day for the bridge in question. One hundred twenty-four years ago today, at 18 minutes past 2 in the afternoon of December 17, 1891, the keystone for Wheeling’s new stone bridge on Main Street was lowered into place.
The longest single-span stone bridge in the country when opened to traffic in 1892, the Main Street stone arch bridge was destined to serve our city’s legend as a gateway, both literally and metaphorically.
Built near the mouth of Wheeling Creek to replace an older stone bridge that had collapsed, the bridge spans an area of ancient legend from which the city took its name, the site where a mysterious leaden plate was buried, and where the American steamboat was born. And due to a terrible accident that occurred just a month after the keystone was placed, it is also the setting for a persistent and popular Wheeling ghost story.
But on that day (this day) 124 years ago, the mood was celebratory.
To “Loaf” or Not To “Loaf”
A large crowd had gathered. In fact, large crowds had been gathering to watch the progress of the workers for weeks. This occurred, “in spite of the fact that for months a big sign has been displayed at the north end of the west sidewalk inscribed with the words: ‘Danger! No one is allowed to loaf on this bridge by order of the Board of Public Works.’ Doubtless the hundreds of people who insist on loafing there in spite of the notice . . . console themselves with the knowledge that they are not ‘loafing on the bridge by order of the board of public works,’ but of their own free will and accord.” (Daily Intelligencer, Nov. 3, 1891)
A timber “false arch” frame (“250,000 feet of the best lumber”) held the 159 foot stone arch in place while the keystone was lowered using a derrick. The cheers of the crowd were accompanied by blasts from steam whistles. Speeches were delivered by Judge Cochran (president of the Wheeling Bridge & Terminal Railroad Company) and Mayor Seabright. The crowd — including spectators, members of the press, bridge workers, and city officials — then adjourned for Henry Bierberson’s pub on South Street where toasts were made and “Mr. Joseph Emsheimer, the orator of the Second ward, made a very flowery speech, and congratulated every one connected with the bridge . . . Agent Siebert, of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, sent a keg of his beer over on the arch, and the workmen got away pretty quick with what the visitors did not drink . . .” Perhaps fueled by spirits both ethereal and liquid, three mail carriers from the “South side” raced across the bridge with their bags of letters. Gus Knoke was declared the winner.
An Elegant Math
All of the 771 stones used in the construction (each weighing more than two tons) had been locally quarried and cut in a stone yard at 29th and Eoff Streets under the watchful eye of chief stone cutter, C. S. Olmstead (whose wife was said to be the first woman to walk on the bridge). The keystone is the forty-third stone from the north, at the crown of the arch, 28.4 feet above the top of the abutment, and “12 feet above low water.”
Some time after the keystone was successfully placed, the timber frame was removed. The bridge officially opened to traffic a few moths later in early 1892, and after some initial settling, has served the city well, doing yeoman’s work for a century and a quarter thus far.
Like its stone arch cousin Out the Pike, the Main Street Bridge continues to showcase the talents of bridge engineers, whose clever designs, created during a time of horse and buggy traffic, have nevertheless proven more than fit for the unanticipated challenge of massive daily doses of heavy, modern traffic. It is a victory of stone over steel, of elegant math over sheer mass.
And the keystone holds it all together.
Note: Wheeling’s City Engineer at the time, Francis Lyell “Frank” Hoge, is credited with the design/construction of the Main Street Bridge. Hoge also served in the Confederate Navy. You can read Jeanne Finstein’s interesting biography of Hoge that originally appeared in the Upper Ohio Valley Historical Review, by clicking HERE.