The First Falls View Suspension Bridge

Niagara Falls, New York – Niagara Falls, Ontario

1867 – 1889

The Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge Company was chartered on March 31st 1855. The first Board of Directors consisted of nine members from differing regions of New York State, but nothing was ever put into motion by the board. On April 3rd 1867, the charter was revived and the number of directors reduced to five. On May 22nd 1868, the Clifton Suspension Bridge Company was chartered by the Parliament of Canada. On July 21st 1868, both companies entered into an agreement by which they had the same stockholders and their interests were common.

The success of the Whirlpool Bridge created the demand for a similar bridge to be built 2 miles upriver near the Niagara Falls. During the winter of 1867-1868 a rope was carried across the river over the ice bridge at the site of the proposed new bridge. This established the physical link between the two shorelines.

The first bridge was built on a site known as “Falls View”. It was located 300 yards north of the American Falls and within sight of the mighty Horseshoe Falls.

Built by Samuel Keeffer, this bridge was of the suspension type. It also had a timber deck and stiffening truss and timber towers, which supporting the cables at each end of the bridge. The towers measuring 100 feet (30m) tall were built of 12 inch by 12 inch pine timbers. Each leg of the tower consisted of four timbers and the 16 were grouped together under the saddle plate for the support of the main cables. Guy wires were run from the bridge span to shore anchors to prevent the bridge from swaying.

On Tuesday December 29th 1868, the flooring of the new bridge was completed. Residents were invited to examine the bridge for free until the formal opening.

This bridge was completed and officially opened on January 2nd 1869.  The first carriage to pass over the bridge was drawn by four horses. The driver was Captain Filkins, and the carriage passengers were Hollis White, Vivus V. Smith, Samuel Keefer, and the Honorable William Pool. They were followed across by a large number of pedestrians. The officers of the Clifton Suspension Bridge Company at that time included: John T. Bush of Clifton (president), Hollis White of Niagara Falls, New York (vice-president), Delos Dewolf of Oswego (treasurer), Vivus V. Smith of Syracuse (superintendent & secretary) and W. G. Fargo of Buffalo, New York.

On the Sunday following the official opening of the bridge, an estimated 10,000 trips were made over the bridge. The only other day which came close to this record crossing day was July 15th 1885, when the State Reservation Park was formally opened to the public.

The bridge deck was only 10 feet wide so traffic could only pass in one direction at a time. As a carriage entered the bridge from one end, a bell would ring at the other end to notify them that a carriage was about to cross. This sometimes caused for a long traffic lineup waiting to cross the bridge. Traffic consisted mainly of hack drivers and market gardeners.

In 1872, the sides were enclosed with wood and corrugated metal and a steam powered “Otis” elevator was installed in the Canadian tower to take tourists to an enclosed observation deck at the top of the tower. Tourists could then walk up a flight of stairs to an outdoor promenade on the roof of the tower. The elevator ride was priced at 10 cents.

A few years later the towers were reconstructed. The elevator was abandoned because it was not a financial success.

In 1872 the wood in the bottom chord was replaced with steel and in 1884 the wooden towers were replaced with steel.

In October of 1887, work began to widen the bridge and it was completed on June 13th 1888. The extensive renovation allowed the replacement of all the wooden components with steel. Work on the new structure began at both ends of the bridge.  Two crews worked night and day. On the night of June 12th 1888, the last part of the old structure was removed and the final connection made with new parts. The entire 1,268 foot (386m) long span was a focal point of all who visited Niagara Falls. The bridge deck was expanded to 17 feet (5m) wide, permitting vehicle to pass in either direction at the same time.

Severe winds caused the Falls View Suspension Bridge to swing from side to side and rise and fall, imitating the motion of waves. On the night of January 9th 1889, a ferocious storm with gale force winds thrashed Niagara. After midnight the wind increased and became violent enough to break a fastening of one of the principal storm stays of the bridge which left the bridge to the mercy of the gale force winds.

On the morning of January 10th 1889 at 3:20 a.m., the bridge broke loose and crashed to the river below.  When daylight arrived, the entire bridge had vanished. It had been torn from its anchors. The entire steel span lay upside down in the river at the base of the gorge. Today, the remnants of this bridge still remain submerged under 150 feet (46m) of water.

The last person to cross this bridge was Doctor J.W. Hodge who answered a call from a sick patient, and crossed into Canada at about 10:00 p.m. on January 9th. He began his return journey home across the bridge at 11:30 p.m. Doctor Hodge described the wind as hurricane force and wrote that part of the bridge structure had pulled away from some of the stays. As Doctor Hodge crossed the bridge, the deck rose and fell by 20 feet and at the same time twisted up to 45 degrees. Blinded by the driven rain and holding on for his life, Doctor Hodge felt he wouldn’t live long enough to complete his journey. Doctor Hodge was miraculously able to make his way across the bridge to safety. A woman who resided in Canada is said to have followed Doctor Hodge across the bridge before its final destruction.

The damage loss of this bridge was estimated at $60,000.

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