Weirton Museum offers history on rail bridge

HISTORY LESSON — David A. Simmons, senior editor of “Echoes” magazine, was at the Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center Thursday, speaking to a group of residents about the history of the rail bridge crossing the Ohio River between Weirton and Steubenville. -- Craig Howell

WEIRTON — Close to 40 area residents gathered in the upper floor of the Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center Thursday evening to take a look back at the development of a piece of the area’s transportation network.

As part of its observances of West Virginia Day, the museum hosted “Competing Visions of Community, Commerce and Construction in the First Ohio River Railroad Bridge,” presented by David A. Simmons.

Simmons, senior editor of “Echoes” magazine, a history and news journal published by Ohio History Connection, discussed the development of the railroad bridge crossing the Ohio River between Weirton and Steubenville.

Plans for the bridge, Simmons said, can be traced back to the 1840s when focus on westward travel began to increase.

In particular, two rail companies — the Pittsburgh & Steubenville Railroad and the Steubenville and Indiana Rail Co. — developed and began targeting the area for a crossing, but understood they would need cooperation from the Virginia government.

“Both charters acknowledged the critical role of Virginia,” Simmons said, adding, however, that permission from Virginia was long in coming, between rising national tensions and the state’s own investment in the rival Baltimore & Ohio rail line.

In fact, Simmons noted, Virginia even attempted to make it a criminal act for a private company to develop its own rail line.

Efforts continued though, with other companies including the Holliday’s Cove Railroad Co., developed, and early masonry work began in 1857 to construct the first set of piers. Debate eventually spread from the various companies and states to the U.S. Congress to determine not only whether the bridge should be built, but its size and dimensions.

Authorization from Congress came in 1862, with the legislature of the Restored Government of Virginia, eventually known as West Virginia, giving its support in January 1863.

The original version of the bridge was designed by Jacob Linville, with plans for a 319-foot span made of cast iron, with Simmons noting the material was forced on Linville as wrought iron was preserved for the construction of military ships and weapons.

“The war effort was consuming all of it,” Simmons said.

The original bridge would be completed in August 1865, with its development also helping to inform standards and designs for future rail bridges.

The first phase of replacement for the bridge took place in 1889, with the east and west approaches rebuilt in 1908 and 1909 and the final replacement in 1926 offering a longer span and wider clearance for river traffic.

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