Great International Railway Suspension Bridge Over the Niagara River

Great International Railway Suspension Bridge Over the Niagara River

On March 8th in 1855, the first locomotive crossed John Roebling’s
railway suspension bridge over the Niagara River at Niagara Falls.

Roebling was not the first to bridge the Niagara gorge, but his was the first Niagara bridge to carry rail traffic. It was also the
first railway suspension bridge in North America. His critics protested that a suspension bridge could not possibly support the weight of a train. Roebling countered that his was the only technology capable of accomplishing the job.

Construction began in September 1852. Four huge stone pylons
supported the four iron cables that spanned the river. The bridge had two decks, with railroad track on the top deck and a roadway surface on the lower deck. A system of wooden trusses connected the
decks. The bridge was 822 feet long and its top deck was 240 feet above the raging river.

Three railroads were to use Roebling’s bridge, each requiring a different rail gauge. Buffalo & Niagara Falls Railroad (owned by New York Central) was standard 4′ 8.5″ gauge. The Canadian-owned Great Western Railway (later acquired by Grand Trunk Railway) was built to “provincial gauge” of 5′ 6″ which was commonly used in British colonies. The Canandaigua & Niagara Falls Railroad (controlled by the Erie Railroad) was originally 6′ 0″ gauge.

On March 8, 1855 the bridge was train-tested for the first time using a locomotive named “London”. At 23 tons, she was the heaviest engine available. Her hogger (engineer) tiptoed her across the bridge at a cautious 8 mph. Observers noted that the center of the span dipped 3.5″ under her weight – but the bridge held. Ten days later, the Roebling Bridge opened to regular rail traffic. It was renovated in 1886, and it continued in regular use until it was replaced by the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge in 1897.

In 1857, Currier and Ives released a lithographed print entitled The
Railroad Suspension Bridge
that depicted Niagara Falls and Roebling’s bridge with a woodburning steam passenger train and horse-
drawn carriages crossing it. Roebling’s bridge was also depicted on a 3-cent United States postage stamp titled A Century of Friendship that was issued on August 2, 1948. It is ironic that Roebling’s bridge was chosen as the subject for that
stamp, since the “century of friendship” it commemorated began with somebody else’s bridge. The first Niagara Falls span was a highway-only suspension bridge, designed by Charles Ellet Jr., that opened on August 1, 1848.

This reference note by p4A Contributing Editor Joseph H. Lechner, Ph.D. originally appeared on the Train Collectors Association’s Toy Train discussion forum (TTML).

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