On this day: 8th March 1855, first train crosses Niagra Falls

We all know about the amazing sight that is Niagara Falls. Some of us have even been lucky enough to have visited its illustrious beauty. And, if you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, then you need to crawl out of the rock you’ve been living under and quickly Google this magnificent collection […]

editor
6th March 2017

We all know about the amazing sight that is Niagara Falls. Some of us have even been lucky enough to have visited its illustrious beauty. And, if you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, then you need to crawl out of the rock you’ve been living under and quickly Google this magnificent collection of waterfalls. But, have you heard of the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge?

Given that it was only in use from 1855 to 1897, I doubt it (I’m graduating soon, and even though I might feel old, I most certainly am not that old). Its construction began in 1852 with the aim to promote trading between the United States and Canada. It was argued at the time that a bridge of this nature would never allow the safe passage of trains, since it would be the first working railway suspension bridge – although these doubts were proven wrong on 8th March 1855, when a fully-loaded passenger train, described as “a mammoth English freight engine”, successfully crossed!

Construction was completed in 1855 by John Augustus Roebling, a German-American civil engineer who later went on to design and build the better-known Brooklyn Bridge. He replaced civil engineer Charles Ellet Jr., who left the project following a financial dispute. Roebling continued to build suspension bridges throughout the rest of his career, including one in Pittsburgh. He also designed a suspension bridge over the Ohio River in Cincinnati, named the Cincinnati-Covington Bridge. It was later renamed the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, as it was the world’s longest suspension bridge at the time of completion in 1867.

The completion of the bridge led to increased tourism to Niagara Falls, and also achieved the aim of better trade opportunities between the two countries.

Before the American Civil War in 1861, the Underground Railroad enabled slaves to escape across the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge to Canada, which became colloquially known as “the promised land”.

"It’s been exactly 162 years since the original bridge was completed, but you can still visit today to appreciate its history – and all the rot-infesting, steel-replacing, slave-smuggling science of it"

Although this bridge clearly brought a lot of joy into the world, it’s no secret that it also had its faults. Due to budget restrictions, it was mostly built using wood – something which even I, someone who wouldn’t touch engineering with a bargepole, could tell you was a bad idea. It wasn’t surprising when the bridge began to rot due to the moisture around Niagara Falls. For this reason, the original architecture was replaced with steel by 1880, which enabled the bridge to be used for a bit longer.

More problems were encountered shortly after, though. I hate to be the bearer of bad news (because I’m sure that reading this article about bridges is really brightening your day today), but in the 40 years after the bridge was built, the weight of the average train had increased by over 700%. It doesn’t take an engineer (or a physicist) to recognise that this was not feasible, and so the bridge was redesigned and completed in 1897. What stands today is an arch bridge, now known as the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge.

So there you have it. It’s been exactly 162 years since the original bridge was completed, but you can still visit today to appreciate its history – and all the rot-infesting, steel-replacing, slave-smuggling science of it.

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