The Michigan Central Railway Cantilever Bridge

Niagara Falls, New York – Niagara Falls, Ontario

1883 – 1925

The first Michigan Central Railway Bridge was located just south of the Whirlpool Bridge and was built for use of rail traffic only.

The Michigan Central Railway Bridge was imagined by owner/businessman Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt needed a rail link between Canada and the USA, but was not prepared to pay the high rental price which the owners of the Lower Arch Bridge were asking for in lieu of using their bridge.

Mr. Vanderbilt owned the Michigan Central Railway and had controlling interest in the Canadian Southern Railway. Since he did not want to pay the Lower Arch Bridge rent, he decided to build a new bridge. Vanderbilt formed the Niagara River Bridge Company and received a charter to build a new bridge.

On April 9th 1883, the Niagara River Bridge Company signed a contract with the Central Bridge Works Company of Buffalo New York to build this bridge. The chief engineer was Charles C. Schneider.

This first bridge, of cantilever design, was built across the Niagara Gorge by engineer Edmund Hayes, of the Central Bridge Works Company, at a site just south of the Lower Arch Bridge.

Construction of this bridge began on April 15th 1883. According to the Niagara Falls Gazette newspaper, the cantilever construction used at Niagara Falls was the first time it had been used in America. Contrary to this report the first cantilever bridge in American was designed by Charles Smith for the Cincinnati Southern Railroad to cross the Kentucky River. It was built in 1876-1877.

Cantilever was defined as erection by overhang. The contractors were working under a deadline of November 1st. Every day afterwards, the contractor had to pay a penalty of $500 per day.

The 40.3 meter (132.6 feet) high towers were completed on October 11th. The contractor soon realized that it would not be possible to complete the bridge and railway tracks by November 1st. They anticipated they could put 7.6 meters (25 feet) sections onto each side of the bridge every two days and connect the center span in five days.

Each cantilever measuring 99 meters (325 feet) long and 7.9 meters (26 feet) high where they were anchored were in place by November 18th. Two 7.5 meter (25 feet) long sections were attached and extended from each cantilever. The center span was measured and sent to the company’s Buffalo, New York plant for fabrication.

Each end was made of a section constructed of steel extending from each shoreline nearly half way across the gorge. Each section was supported near its center by a steel tower from which, extended two lever arms, one reaching the shore while the other extended over the river 175 feet (53m) beyond the towers.

Since the outer arm did not have any support and was being subjected the same weight of the trains as the shore arm, a counter advantage was given to the shore arm being firmly anchored to the rock on shore. The towers on each side rose from the water level below. The bridge span was 495 feet (151m). The ends of the cantilevers extended 395 feet (120m) from the abutments. This left a gap of 120 feet (36.5m), which was filled by an ordinary truss type bridge hung form the ends of the cantilever.

Provisions had been built into this bridge to allow for expansion and contraction, allowing the ends to move freely as the temperature changed. The total length of the bridge was 906 feet (276m). It had a double track and had the capacity to bear the weight of two trains crossing at the same time producing a side pressure equal to a 75 mile per hour wind. The railway was 240 feet (73m) above the Niagara River.

On November 21st, media reports indicated that the bridge had been completed, linking Canada and the USA together.

The $700,000 dollar bridge was officially completed on December 1st 1883. On December 6th 1883 at 11:41 a.m., the first crossing of this new bridge was made. It consisted of an engine pulling a tender and passenger car. The passenger car carried a number of dignitaries including railway Superintendent G. H. Burrows.

After the bridge was declared safe, a second train with newspaper reporters aboard crossed soon thereafter. A plaque adorned the American side of this bridge and read:  1883 Niagara River Bridge Company Cornelius Vanderbilt, President James Tillingham, Vice-President Built by Central Bridge Works, Buffalo Geo. S. Fields, Manager C.V. W. Kitridge, Treasurer Edmond Hayes, Engineer Length of Bridge 906 feet Work commenced April 15th, 1883 Completed December 1st, 1883   On the morning of December 20th 1883, the day a ceremony by invitation took place at the bridge, a team of seven heavy freight trains crossed the bridge without incident. At the official appointed time of 12:08 p.m. before a gathered crowd, twenty locomotives pulling loaded gravel cars crossed the bridge in two groups consisting of ten locomotives and twelve loaded gravel cars. Each train crossed the bridge simultaneously from opposite ends. When both trains passed each other, both sets of track were fully occupied. The bridge successfully passed this load test. When the trains had completed their respective journeys they blew their whistles in celebration. A banquet for the invited guests was held at the Monteagle House on the American side, while the remaining crowd members were allowed to walk back and forth across the bridge.  The Cantilever Bridge remained in operation for more than forty years until much heavier modern trains came along requiring the building of the much stronger steel arch bridge.

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