The First Suspension Bridge

Niagara Falls, New York – Niagara Falls, Ontario


Nearly 150 years ago, William Hamilton Merritt was the man who visualized a bridge over the Niagara River. It was Merritt who planned and built the first Welland Canal. This made it possible for ships to avoid the Niagara Falls.

In 1846, permission was received from the Governments of Upper Canada and the State of New York for the formation of two companies with the ability to construct a bridge at or near the Falls. The companies were the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge Company of Canada and the International Bridge Company of New York. Both companies would jointly build and own the bridge.

In autumn of 1847, the bridge companies commissioned Charles Ellet Jr. to construct a bridge at a location, selected by the companies, along the Niagara River. This site was located along the Niagara Gorge and above the beginning of the Whirlpool Rapids. This was the narrowest point from shoreline to shoreline.

The first obstacle was to create a line of communication, followed by a solid line in order to establish a link to the American side, since establishing a link by water was very dangerous. The width of the area of gorge was 800 feet (244m) apart.

One of the suggestions for this problem involved flying a kite across the river. A contest was held, with a five dollar prize, to see who could fly a kite across the Niagara Gorge. A young American boy named Homan Walsh won the contest on the second day of the competition flying his kite from the Canadian shoreline. The string of his kite was fastened to a tree on the American shoreline and it was pulled across by light cord attached. They later tried a heavier cord, then a rope, and finally a wire cable.

A 50 foot (15.2m) wooden tower was erected on each bank. Wire cable measuring 1,190 feet (359.6m) was passed over the top of the towers and anchored. Initially a metal basket was pulled from side to side designed by Judge Huellet. It looked like two high backed rocking chairs facing each other. The first trip was made on May 12th 1848. One hundred and twenty-five people crossed each day in the basket contraption for one dollar return fare.

A foot bridge 3 feet (0.91m) wide was soon built allowing persons to cross daily for a fee a 25cents return fare.

On July 26th 1848, the first Niagara Suspension Bridge was completed. Charles Ellet Jr. was the first to ride across in a horse and carriage. It was officially opened to the public on August 1st 1848. This bridge was 762 feet long (232m) and 8 feet (2.4m) wide. It had a heavy oak plank roadway suspended 220 feet above the river below. Even though swayed and dipped when under a heavy load or the wind occurred, no record of any accident or injury existed.

The bridge consisted of four massive wooden towers, each 80 feet (24.3m) high. Two towers on each side of the bank, where the cables were suspended. There were four cables, each composed of approximately 120 strand Number 10 wire. Each cable had been stretched at an equal tension at each side. There was wire passing around an iron yoke at each end, these acted as means of anchoring the cables to the rock. Suspending wires connected the cross cable to the wooden superstructure below.

Soon after completion of this bridge, Charles Ellet Jr. and his brother began charging pedestrians and carriage traffic. A fare for crossing the bridge in each direction was collected, all of this occurred without the permission of the Bridge Directors. Charles Ellet Jr. was keeping the money generated from the fares. In October 1848, a dispute over the collection of fares, and who had the right of collection, erupted between the Bridge Directors and Ellet. During one quarrel at the bridge, Ellet’s brother and several others were arrested. This dispute was finally resolved after a court order was obtained against Charles Ellet Jr. and his family.

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