Discussion of a bridge between Ohio and Kentucky had occurred at least as early as 1815. In 1829, the Kentucky Legislature granted a charter to build one, but it wasn’t until 1839 that serious talk to improve commerce between Kentucky and Cincinnati showed the need for a bridge over the Ohio River. However, because it was necessary to first build a road to move farm goods from the central Bluegrass region of Kentucky, notably hogs and cattle, to Covington and Cincinnati, then major meatpacking centers. The decision was made to push for the completion of the Covington and Lexington Turnpike before creating a bridge.
A new charter for a bridge in Covington was issued by the Kentucky Legislature in 1846, but due to a strong steamboat lobby which controlled river commerce, the Ohio Legislature delayed issuance of a similar charter. With several imposing restrictions added by Ohio lawmakers, the charter passed in 1849. One restriction was that the bridge must not be built in line with any existing streets in Cincinnati.
In 1856, after little progress was made on the project, a new president for the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge Company, Amos Shinkle, picked John Augustus Roebling (1806 – 1869) a German-born American civil engineer, to build the bridge. Roebling, an experienced bridge designer from Pennsylvania, was hired as the chief engineer of the project. Construction began on the bridge in September 1856, but the Panic of 1857 halted its construction.
Work on the bridge did not resume until the middle of the American Civil War. In September 1862, the Confederate Army’s thrust into Kentucky, and threat on Cincinnati highlighted the need to complete the bridge on the Ohio River. In 1863, work began anew, Roebling returned to Covington in the spring of 1864. Immigrants were involved in the construction, from common laborers to stonemasons. No records of those who actually worked on the bridge have ever been found.
One million pounds of wire would be imported from Manchester, England. Roebling preferred it over wire made in the United States because of its quality and greater tensile strength. These original cables would span the width of the river, and were spun, in place, by Roebling’s patented process which consisted of a large number of individual wires rounded up into one suspension cable. The cables rested on eleven ton iron anchors and were secured by wrought iron chain links. The Anchorages on both shores were constructed of a limestone base and a freestone finish. Meanwhile, atop the 2 unfinished sandstone towers, which were built on timber foundations, or grillages, 12 feet thick, 110 feet long, and about 80 feet wide, and still stand at 200 feet in height, these cables rested on iron saddles which were protected by brick turrets, and when bridge was completed, topped with decorative greek crosses.
The towers were completed in 1865. At this time John A. Roebling was in New York planning the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. His son, Colonel Washington Roebling, Union Army veteran and assistant chief engineer supervised the project. Completed in late 1866, 166,000 people had crossed the bridge its opening weekend. At 1,057 feet, its span made it the longest suspension bridge in the world when it opened. The Covington-Cincinnati Bridge Company—a private company—operated the bridge. The Suspension Bridge was officially dedicated on January 1, 1867. The driver of a horse and buggy was charged a toll of 15 cents to cross; the toll for three horses and a carriage was 25 cents. Pedestrians were charged a cent.
By the early 1890s, an inspection revealed some weakening of the cable at the bridge’s anchorages due to moisture. Local bridge engineer Gustave Bouscaren reinforced the collars to restore strength, but concerns over the suspension bridges future led the bridge company to recommend improvements. Another German-born engineer, Wilhelm Hildenbrand, principal assistant to Washington Roebling, recommended retaining the basic structure. In the reconstruction of the Covington-Cincinnati Bridge in 1895-1899 two steel cables and four new anchorages were added. The 10.5 inch cables came from the John A. Roebling and Sons Company of Trenton, NJ. In the process of reconstruction the original turrets atop the stone towers were replaced because of the addition of more cables.
Hildebrand’s work significantly altered the appearance of the bridge. The bridge was painted green, rather than brown. Massive steel trusses were added to replace the original iron trusses, and with the deeper beams the bridge was widened from 20 to 30 feet. As a result, pedestrians crossing the bridge had to walk around the towers.
The new 30-ton weight limit extended its usefulness through the 20th century and beyond. Automobiles replaced the streetcar as the bridges primary traffic. The new Dixie Highway(U.S. 25) was routed over the Suspension Bridge, and was the primary roadway connecting Northern Kentucky with Cincinnati, Ohio. During the record flood of 1937, the bridge was the only crossing open on the Ohio River between Steubenville, Ohio and Cairo, Illinois, a distance of over 800 miles.
In 1953, the Commonwealth of Kentucky purchased the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge, and acquired buildings of the structure on both sides of the river. Shortly after the purchase, the state replace the timber floor with a stronger open-grid steel floor. The bridge continued to be operated as a toll facility until 1963 when the Brent Spence Bridge was opened on Interstate 75, downstream, approximately 0.6 miles (0.97 km) to the west of The Roebling Suspension Bridge.
The Roebling Bridge was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975, and a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1982. The bridge was painted blue around the time of the ’76 Bicentennial, and the Covington-Cincinnati Suspension Bridge Commitee, a local citizens group began flying flags atop the towers in 1976 to commemorate the U.S. Bicentennial. The commitee is also responsible for the cable lighting system that was installed on the bridge in 1984 in memory of Julia Langsam, former president and supporter of the project. In that same year the bridge was officially named the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge.
After a 1987 state inspection and analysis, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet pursued a program of repairs and restoration in the early 1990s. The replacement of the saddle houses with turrets resembling the originals, new ball-and-cross finials, and dramatic lighting are some of the work completed by the program.
In 2006, The Commonwealth of Kentucky closed the bridge to make extensive repairs to the structure, and was reopened in late March, 2007. In 2008, it was closed again for repainting. On September 11, 2007 the Commonwealth of Kentucky reduced the weight limit to 11 tons to prevent future structural damage preventing buses from crossing the bridge.
On January 10, 2013, a large piece of sandstone fell from the north tower causing the bridge to be closed for approx. 4 hours during rush hour. This time was used to remove debris and inspect the tower for further damage.