Old railroad bridge used to be America’s largest

BELPRE-Construction on the Sixth Street Railroad Bridge, also called the Parkersburg Bridge, was finished in 1871 by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

The bridge, designed by Jacob Linville, has 46 spans and 50,000 cubic yards of stone were used to finish the piers. The bridge cost $1 million to build and is nearly one mile long.

Local historian Eldon Young said the bridge once held a lofty title.

“When it was built, it was the largest bridge in America at that time,” said Young. “The bridge was fabricated and erected by the Keystone Bridge Company.”

The bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on Dec. 10, 1982 under the name The Sixth Street Railroad Bridge.

The railroad used to carry not only cattle and materials for building, but also people as passengers.

Nancy Sams, president of the Belpre Historical Society, said the bridge’s history is tied closely with a ferry that used to run between Belpre and Parkersburg.

“A ferry boat ran back and forth to Parkersburg, the Nina Paden,” said Sams. “It carried people and livestock. It was used when the bridge wasn’t there, when it was being built (and) repaired.”

David Simmons, president of the Ohio Historic Bridge Association, said there were around five trusses over the river and 22 on the approaches.

“The original piers remain from the original bridge design,” he said.

Young added that the piers on land are held together by weight alone; there is no mortar to hold them in place.

The bridge was a part of the B&O’s Baltimore – St. Louis mainline and offered the railroad easy access to Ohio in transporting coal and other materials to the east coast.

“Three railroads were finished in the same month and now (passengers) could go from Baltimore to St. Louis without leaving a car; the only thing that changed was the engine,” said Young. “They knew it was going to open up the area.”

Young said when CSX took over the railroad in the 1990s, the straight shot to Cincinnati from Belpre was taken out.

“The train leaving Cincinnati has to go to Kentucky, back into West Virginia and up to Parkersburg,” he said. “(If someone) needed a car in Parkersburg they could have it in two days; now I’m told it’s seven days.”

After CSX took over the bridge, maintenance fell to them. Young said they replaced several railroad ties across the bridge three or four years ago.

“They also replaced some rails just recently,” he added.

The bridge hasn’t changed design too much since it was built.

“They replaced the iron to steel from 1904 to 1906,” said Young. “They never closed it down; the trains were still running.”

There was also an incident when a barge hit the bridge, after which work needed to be done for repairs.

In all the years the train has been active, rarely has it been closed down to rail traffic.

“There never have been any wrecks on the bridge that I can recall,” said Young. “A few years back there was one on the approach, but that had nothing to do with the bridge. They picked up the car and opened (the bridge) back up.”

One thing that’s seen a change over the years is the absence of a low yard, which helped trains make a smooth trip back and forth across the Ohio River.

“They (also) don’t have passenger service anymore,” Young said. “It’s been a long time (since they’ve offered that).”