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Our Rich History: New book, PBS documentary shine national attention on John A. Roebling Bridge

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

The John A. Roebling Bridge, connecting Cincinnati, Ohio and Covington, Kentucky, has always been the lesser-known sibling to its bigger and better-known sister, the Brooklyn Bridge. Both were designed by the famous Roebling family. Beyond that, the sibling competition is fierce. The Cincinnati bridge has graceful rounded Roman arches, the Brooklyn Bridge soaring Gothic ones. The Cincinnati/Covington bridge is older (1867), its New York counterpart younger (1883). Then, the knockout punch — the Brooklyn Bridge took away the Cincinnati bridge’s title as then-the-world’s-longest suspension bridge.

Cover of Don Heinrich Tolzmann’s latest book, “The Roebling Suspension Bridge: Wilhelm Hildenbrand’s Report on Its Reconstruction in the 1890s” (Cincinnati, Ohio: Archivarium Press, 2018).

Now, Dr. Don Tolzmann adds some punch to the John A. Roebling Bridge. His latest book is entitled, “The Roebling Suspension Bridge: Wilhelm Hildenbrand’s Report on Its Reconstruction in the 1890s” (Cincinnati, Ohio: Archivarium Press, 2018). Within its pages, Tolzmann “bridges” the friendly sibling competition through the person of Wilhelm (William) Hildenbrand.

This is Tolzmann’s fourth book on the John A. Roebling Bridge. The prior three were: “The Roebling Suspension Bridge: A Guide to Historic Sites, People, and Places” (Cincinnati, OH: Archivarium Press, 2017); “John A. Roebling and His Suspension Bridge on the Ohio River” (Milford, OH: Little Miami Publishing, 2007); and his editing of E.F. Farrington’s “The John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, a Full and Complete Description, with Dimensions and Details of Construction” (Milford, OH: Little Miami Publishing, 2016). Tolzmann, a preeminent historian known for his books about German-Americana, is the official historian of the Covington-Cincinnati Suspension Bridge Committee.

William Hildenbrand (1843-1908) was born in Karlsruhe, Germany, where he studied engineering at Karlsruhe Polytechnic Institute. In 1867, ironically the same year that the John A. Roebling Bridge was completed, Hildenbrand immigrated to the United States.

Hildenbrand lived and worked in New York City. In fact, one of his first jobs was for John A. Roebling on the Brooklyn Bridge. Following the death of John Roebling in 1869, and the incapacitating contraction of the “bends” (“caisson disease”) by Washington Roebling in 1870, Hildenbrand became assistant engineer on the Brooklyn Bridge project.

View of the John A. Roebling suspension bridge, late 1800s. Source: Paul A. Tenkotte.

According to Joseph Mayer, in an article appearing in a 1914 “Proceedings of the American Society of Civil Engineers”: “During Mr. Roebling’s protracted illness, which confined him to bed or room for nearly ten years, Mr. Hildenbrand made all the scientific and mathematical calculations for the structure. He also made the architectural design for the approaches and had charge of the steel superstructure, which was designed, inspected, and erected under his direction” (Tolzmann, p. 3).

In 1894, the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge Company invited six engineers to offer proposals for reconstruction of the bridge. Of the six, only one engineer recommended keeping the bridge and strengthening it for heavier electric streetcars and higher volumes of traffic, William Hildenbrand. The other five, according to Hildenbrand, “‘unanimously considered the old structure worn out and worthless and recommended that it be entirely removed and replaced by a truss or cantilever bridge requiring an additional pier in the middle of the river.’ “ (Tolzmann, p. 22).

Fortunately for our region, and for American history overall, the board of the bridge company chose Hildenbrand. To accommodate electric streetcars, which were heavier and faster than horsecars, Hildebrand needed to both widen and stabilize the roadway. He increased it from 20 to 30 feet, except through the arches, where he could only widen it to 26 feet. He also widened the pedestrian walkways from 7 to 9 feet and moved them outside of the towers.

Hildenbrand accomplished the strengthening and stabilizing of the bridge by adding a second suspension cable, and by constructing a truss system. He improved grades on the bridge, and also extended the approaches on both the Covington and Cincinnati sides. On the Cincinnati side, he extended the ramp to Second Street, to enable bridge traffic to cross over congestion caused by a railroad then running parallel to the river.

The reconstructed John A. Roebling Bridge, completed in 1899, shows the additional cable, the truss system, and the new rounded anchorages on the stone piers. Source: circa 1909 postcard in the collection of Paul A. Tenkotte.

Hildenbrand’s additions and improvements preserved the original grace and beauty of the bridge, and even more miraculously, they were accomplished by 1899 — without having to close the bridge. The entire story is told in Hildenbrand’s uncompleted manuscript report, which Tolzmann has rescued from the Cincinnati History Library and Archives at Museum Center and has published for the first time ever. Tolzmann excels at preserving, prizing, and publicizing the history of our John A. Roebling Bridge.

Since the 1980s, I have been studying the history of our region, including the John A. Roebling Bridge. Tolzmann’s new book on Hildenbrand features the engineer’s own words about the consequences of slavery and how it affected the charter of the bridge. The original 1846 Kentucky charter made the bridge company financially responsible for runaway slaves, or as Hildenbrand stated it, “the officers of the Bridge Company were made watchmen for the slave owners to prevent the slaves from running away’ “ (Tolzmann, p. 15).

As I wrote in “Gateway City: Covington, Kentucky, 1815-2015” (Covington: Clerisy Press, 2016), the runaway slave provision was among a number of factors preventing the Ohio legislature from initially approving the Kentucky charter. Finally, in 1849, the Ohio General Assembly passed the charter but added some amendments, including one that “no Ohio state court was to accept any cases dealing with runaway slaves who passed over the bridge” (Tenkotte, Claypool, and Schroeder, eds., p. 35).

The slavery issue was not over, however. In 1850, the Ohio legislature added a new amendment, prohibiting the bridge company from using any Cincinnati street for its abutments or ramps. This forced the bridge company to buy private land between streets for its ramps.

“There was a moral dimension,” to the amendment as well, because some antislavery Ohio citizens were reluctant “to dedicate a public right-of-way in a free state to the use of a company based in a slave state” (Tenkotte, Claypool, and Schroeder, eds., p. 36)

The Brooklyn Bridge. Source: postcard in the collection of Paul A. Tenkotte.

The 1850 amendment deprived the bridge of taking scenic advantage of perfectly aligned north-south Cincinnati and Covington streets. John Roebling’s dreamed-of grand boulevard, that the bridge was designed to enhance rather than interrupt, never came to be.

Instead, the bridge straddles the area between north-south streets on each shore. Yet, as I have written in a prior column, “Instead of trying to surmount the alignment problem, why don’t we simply embrace it and what it has to teach us historically about the awful institution of slavery? Adhering to one’s principles and acting morally sometimes produces small inconveniences. However, acting ethically and morally makes an important statement and, often, a lasting impact.”

See this previous NKyTribune story about the bridge.

Now, the PBS series, “10 Modern Marvels That Changed America,” will feature the John A. Roebling Bridge in its newest episode. On Tuesday evening, July 24 at 8 p.m. EST on your PBS station, please join viewers nationwide as the John A. Roebling Bridge adds another punch to its friendly sibling rivalry with the Brooklyn Bridge.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Dr. Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Tenkotte is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University.

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