In 1816, with a strong interest in internal improvements, the legislatures of Virginia and Ohio authorized the formation of the Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company (Belmont because the bridge company was to connect from Wheeling, Virginia to Belmont County in Ohio). With the coming of the National Road to Wheeling, it was necessary to bridge the Ohio. Although the road reached Wheeling in 1818, it wasn't until 1847 that the construction of a bridge was commissioned. In sharp competition with John Roebling, later noted for the famous Brooklyn Bridge, the company granted the contract to Charles Ellet, Jr.
The span of the bridge is 1010 feet, measured from the center of the two supporting towers—the longest clear-span bridge in the world at the time. All the materials for the bridge , including the drawn iron wire used to create the cables, were produced locally. The main cables rest upon iron rollers at the summits of each tower. The rollers relieve the strain on the cables caused by expansion and contraction with the changes in temperature.
In 1854, high winds set up an ocillation in the deck structure that resulted in severe damage to the bridge. Under the supervision of Ellet, reconstruction work began almost immediately and the bridge was reopened in just three months. In 1867 the Citizen Railway Company was granted permission to lay tracks on the bridge to accommodate horse-drawn streetcars, a possibility indicated earlier by Ellet. In 1872, Washington Roebling, son of John Roebling, was commissioned to provide upgrades to the bridge which included the installation of diagonal cable stays. The bridge remained essentially unchanged until 1956 when a new steel deck system was installed.
The most recent work on the bridge was completed in 1999 with repairs to the stiffening truss and wire rope stays, complete inspection and rewrapping of the cables, and the installation of new illumination. Today, the bridge stands as one of the finest example of pre-Civil War engineering and is considered as one of the world's most significant and historic bridges.
(left sidebar) Charles Ellet, Jr., was born in 1810 in Bucks County, near Philadelphia. The young Ellet had little interest in farming and in 1827 left home to join a survey of the Susquehanna River. In 1828 he gained employment on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and rose to the position of assistant engineer by 1829. The following year Ellet resigned and moved to France to study. Returning to the U.S. in 1832, Ellet became a leading proponent of wire suspension bridge construction. In 1841, he won the contract to build the Fairmount Bridge across the Schuykill River at Philadelphia. This placed Ellet in the forefront of wire suspension bridge construction in America, a position further enhanced with the building of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge.