Exploring Great Destinations in the Niagara Region, Ontario, Canada
early suspension bridge

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Exploring Niagara Falls

Bridges of the Past

A canyon, worn 150 to 200 feet deep by the waters of an ancient river and a dividing line between two countries, although majestic in appearance, proved to be a formidable obstacle for anyone wishing to cross in the 1800's. The sides of the gorge were almost perpendicular on both sides and swift currents prevented small boats from making the passage.

It was soon discovered that row boats could cross the river below the falls. The steep slopes of the Niagara gorge would present another problem. Before long a ferry service was established, and a series of ladders and steps that would take passengers from the ferry, up the sides of the cliffs to the early settlements at the falls. This type of ferry service would prevail for four more decades. Although a hazardous undertaking at the best of times, not a single accident was ever recorded.

It was apparent that an alternative solution was needed to accommodate the ever increasing traffic between the two countries. In 1845 a plan was set forth that would see both the United States and Canada sharing equally in the construction of a suspension bridge over the cataract at Niagara Falls.

"The Indenture, made the ninth day of November, in the year one thousand eight hundred and forty seven, between the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge Company, of the one part, and the Niagara Falls International Bridge Company, of the other part: Witnesseth, That, whereas, the two companies were incorporated for the express purpose (as appears by their respective characters) of constructing a Suspension or other Bridge over the Niagara River near the Falls, for the convenience, use and benefit of the citizens, subjects and residents, as well as the State of New York, and other states of the American Union, as of Great Britain, her dependencies, and Canada."

The Very First Suspension Bridge

In 1848, Mr. Charles Ellet built the first suspension bridge over the Niagara Gorge. In order to do so he devised a plan to sail a kite from the American side to the Canadian side. He enlisted the help of a group of neighbourhood children and offered $5.00 to the first kite to land on the Canadian side. By nightfall one skillful youth had landed his kite and received the reward.

This string crossing made it possible to secure a thin wire and send it back to the opposite side. Each time the wire was replaced with a thicker one until a wire cable seven-eights of an inch in diameter was strung from one side to the other and a small wire basket that could hold two people was suspended from the cable. The basket was attached to ropes on either side with operators who would hoist the basket along it's fine wire cable. This was the very first form of crossing the Niagara River by a man-made bridge. The idea of crossing the Niagara River just north of the falls in a basket suspended by a wire would seem to be a terrifying proposition, but the exercise was carried out dozens of times each day without an accident or fatality.

Charles Ellet then began construction on a temporary suspension bridge across the cataract that would only allow pedestrian traffic. This bridge was located approximately where the Rainbow Bridge is now. Charles Ellet was hoping that he would win the contract to build the first permanent railway suspension bridge over the falls from the newly formed Bridge Commission. Charles Ellet was a brilliant engineer but his skills as a businessman were less polished. Shortly after the construction of the temporary suspension bridge Mr. Ellet proceeded to collect fares for crossing against the wishes of the Bridge Commission. A legal argument ensued and Mr. Ellet was awarded $10,000 and his contract revoked. In 1851 the contract for the new railway suspension bridge was awarded to Mr. John A. Roebling.

Queenston - Lewiston Suspension Bridge

queenston-lewston bridge

Erected in 1850 by E.W. Serrell, Esq., Canada, this bridge was operational until 1864 when it was severely damaged by heavy winds. It's length was 845 feet and it was suspended by ten massive cables, which passed over stone towers, and were attached to anchors which were embedded deep in the solid rock.

This bridge would eventually be replaced by the present steel arch bridge, located less than a mile south from the original Queenston-Lewiston Suspension Bridge.

Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge

The Niagara Railway Suspension bridge was opened for train traffic on March 18th, 1855. The bridge, designed and engineered by Mr. John A. Robeling consisted of two decks, 28 feet apart. Four enormous cables approximately 10 inches in diameter suspended the bridge 250 feet above the raging waters of the Niagara River.

The lower portion of the bridge had been in use for the previous year allowing for carriages, cattle and pedestrians to cross freely between Niagara Falls, Canada and Niagara Falls, New York. In the first year of use approximately 45 single engine trains would pass over the bridge in a twenty four hour period. There was much speculation at the time whether such an engineering feat could be accomplished.

suspension bridge

When completed the bridge would span 825 feet and would become the world's first railway suspension bridge. The bridge functioned as a major crossing point between the two countries from 1855 to 1897. Three railway lines crossed over the bridge, connecting cities on both sides of the border. The Great Western Railway, New York Central Railroad, and New York and Erie Rail Road. The Suspension Bridge was finally replaced by the Lower Steel Arch Bridge, which was later renamed the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, on August 27, 1897.

From a Final Report dated May 1, 1855 to the Presidents and Directors of the Niagara Falls Suspension and Niagara Falls International Bridge Companies, John A. Roebling, Civil Engineer for the project wrote:

It gives me great pleasure to be enabled to report the Niagara Suspension Rail Way Bridge complete in all it's parts. The success of this work may now be considered an established fact. The trains of the New York Central, and of the Great Western Rail Road in Canada, have been crossing regularly since the 18th of March, averaging over 30 trips per day.

One single observation of the passage of a train over the Niagara Bridge, will convince the most sceptical, that the practicability of Suspended Railway Bridges, so much doubted heretofore, has been successfully demonstrated.

The practicality of the Suspended Railway Bridges of large spans, was a practical question of great importance to the country, intersected as it is by large rivers and deep gorges, at a depression far below the general surface of the surrounding country.

The free and unobstructed navigation of our great rivers, which are to be crossed by Railways, also demanded a new class of viaducts, such as will safely pass the locomotive with it's train at one bound, and at an elevation, that will leave no obstruction to the sailing, and steaming craft below. The great rivers of this continent will no longer offer an insurmountable obstruction to the formation of uninterrupted lines of Railways.........While the European Engineers are engaged in the construction of short lines of railways at such enormous cost, that in most cases the capital invested, yields no remunerative dividends, the task of the American Engineer is to lay down thousand of miles with extensive bridging, at a cost that would barely suffice in Great Britain to cover the expenses of preliminary proceeding.

The work which you did me the honour to entrust to my charge, has cost less than $400,000. The same object accomplished in Europe would have cost 4 million without serving a better purpose, or insuring greater safety. The mixed application of timber and iron in connection with wire, render it possible to put up so large a work at so small a cost. When, hereafter, by reason of greater wealth and increased traffic, we can afford to expend more on such Public Works, we shall construct them entirely of iron, omitting all perishable materials. We may then see Railway Bridges suspended of 2000 feet span, which will admit the passage of trains at the highest speed."