Our Rich History: Newport and Covington Suspension Bridge was completed in 1853

Part 7 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020”

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

More than a decade before John A. Roebling’s graceful suspension bridge spanned the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Covington, a suspension bridge connected Covington and Newport, Kentucky. Located at Fourth Street in Covington, where the Veterans Memorial Bridge is now located, the Newport and Covington Suspension Bridge had a storied past.

On January 27, 1830, the Kentucky General Assembly passed an act incorporating the Licking Bridge Company. The incorporators included the most prominent Newport and Covington residents of the time: James Taylor, Richard and William Wright Southgate, Edward Colston, Thomas D. Carneal, Samuel Kennedy, and others. Capitalized at $15,000, to be divided into a total of 3,000 shares, the company was to advertise the opening of stock subscriptions within six months of the passage of the act. Further, the charter stipulated that, upon the sale of 2,000 shares, the corporation could officially organize. Apparently, lack of funding dissolved the corporation (Kentucky, An Act to incorporate a company to erect a Bridge across Licking river, between the towns of Newport and Covington, 1829-30, p. 115).

In February 1844, the Covington-based Licking Valley Register published an article describing an iron suspension bridge just completed over the Miami Canal at Race Street in Cincinnati. Noting that it was the first such bridge built “west of the mountains,” it further referenced the success of a similar suspension bridge, designed by Charles Ellet, and erected over the Schuylkill River at Fairmount near Philadelphia. Moreover, the article stated that Northern Kentuckians were “discussing the propriety of erecting a wire suspension bridge” over the l9icking River (“From the Cincinnati Atlas. Wire Bridge,” Licking Valley Register, February 24, 1844, p. 2).

On June 27, 1844, a public meeting was held in Newport to discuss the proposed Licking River Bridge. Marcus T. C. Gould reviewed the success of the Schuylkill span, and reported that a suspension bridge over the Licking could be built for as little as $20,000, $5,000 of which he claimed the city of Covington was willing to subscribe. The bridge, he attested, would “add to the comfort and convenience of our own citizens,” and would increase the commerce and real estate of Newport (“Bridge across the Licking,” Licking Valley Register, July 20, 1844, p. 2).

The Newport and Covington Suspension Bridge. Source: Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, December 20, 1856.

Interestingly, Gould was a Cincinnati land agent. In an advertisement for the same newspaper, Gould offered for sale “cheap building lots” in Newport, and as an additional service to those wishing to build upon them immediately, claimed that buyers would “be furnished upon a single order, with each, every, any or all the elements of a building, or a building complete, upon the shortest notice” (“Cheap Building Lots,” Licking Valley Register, July 20, 1844, p. 3). Curiously enough, in another column on the same page, Gould called for 1,000,000 good bricks, “1,000 perch of good Stone for cellars; 8,000 bushels of Lime, and 250,000 feet of Pine Lumber.” In addition, he solicited the services of “Stonemasons, Bricklayers, Carpenters, Plasterers, Painters, & c., to work the above materials into 20 or more tenements, or buildings.” In exchange for materials and/or workmanship, he offered “eligible building lots” at “the lowest cash prices” (“Building in Newport Opposite Cincinnati,” Licking Valley Register, July 20, 1844, p. 3).

A later letter to the editor of the Licking Valley Register, signed “G,” and probably written by Gould, expressed the belief that the three cities of Cincinnati, Covington and Newport were essentially one urban area. He stated that “Cincinnati would soon cover the entire plain to the surrounding hills.” Circumstances would force her population to expand into Northern Kentucky. The future would witness, he predicted, that “though there might never be a municipal identity of one and all; yet, that union, communion, and intercommunion, in a thousand particulars, would be the inevitable result of a few succeeding years.” And as a presage of the future course of events, a bridge would be built between Covington and Newport. “G” spoke confidently of the venture as “the sure entering wedge to a much greater enterprise, and a far more important achievement, viz. [clearly] a bridge across the Ohio at Cincinnati.” In fact, the Licking River Bridge would function as a “dress rehearsal.” After all, both were limited by similar conditions, namely that they be high enough to permit the passage of steamboats, and second, that they contain no piers to block the navigable channel (“For the Register. Licking Bridge,” Licking Valley Register, July 27, 1844, p. 2).

By mid-August 1844, the Licking Valley Register reported that the town of Newport, as well as nearly eighty individuals, had subscribed to the stock of the bridge company. With already 2,000 shares sold, the company was officially organized, and held its first meeting in Newport on Saturday, August 31, 1844, when the shareholders elected six directors and chose Marcus T. C. Gould as President.

By the first week of April 1845, the east (Newport shore) bridge pier was begun, with promises that the Covington abutment was to be “commenced” the following week. Unfortunately, the work slowed, so much so that by September 1846, it had apparently been halted for lack of funds (“Covington & Newport,” Licking Valley Register, September 2, 1846, p. 2).

The Licking River bridge proposal was resurrected in 1849, at which time only a single pier, on the Newport shore, stood in testimony of the earlier efforts of the 1844 company. Charles Ellet, a noted suspension bridge designer, traveled to Northern Kentucky in late February or early March of 1849, and made arrangements to build a suspension bridge between Covington and Newport. He was to begin construction on April 1, and he projected completion by December 1. Although the exact circumstances are unknown, Ellet’s proposal never reached fruition.

In January 1852, the Kentucky General Assembly chartered the Newport and Covington Bridge Company, a corporation of prominent Covington and Newport residents, with the privilege of “constructing one or more permanent bridges” between Covington and Newport. The act provided that the cities of Covington and Newport could subscribe for stock in the span, and within ten years, both cities or either had the option of purchasing the bridge for the cost of construction, plus six percent interest (Kentucky, An Act incorporating the Newport and Covington Bridge Company, Kentucky Acts, 1851-52, p. 521).

By June 1853, the Covington Journal reported that construction of the company’s suspension bridge, at the end of Fourth Street in Covington, was proceeding quickly under the superintendence of George C. Tarvin. The contractor was John Gray of Pittsburgh, and the cost of construction was originally pegged at $62,500.

On Wednesday, November 30, 1853, the wire cables for the Newport and Covington Suspension Bridge were strung across the channel. The process involved attaching a rope to each of the eight cables, and using a series of pulleys, rollers, and drums on the riverbanks, as well as “on the hulls of steamboats in the river.” Two 93-foot-tall brick towers carried eight cables measuring 902 feet in length and weighing a total of 88 tons. Six of the cables were composed of “250 strands of wire each,” and the “remaining two of 308 strands each.” On Wednesday, December 28, 1853, George Tarvin, joined by Mayor Foley of Covington, made the first vehicular passage across the bridge (“Bridge Cables,” Louisville Daily Courier, December 5, 1853, p. 3; Covington Journal, June 25, 1853, p. 3; Covington Journal, December 31, 1853, p. 3).

On Monday evening, January 16, 1854, while two men and eighteen head of cattle were crossing it, the bridge suddenly collapsed into the river. There were no human casualties. The disaster was blamed on poorly manufactured cast iron rings holding the cables. The bridge’s piers were completely intact, permitting rebuilding to begin immediately. Damage amounted to about $14,000, and with other additional expenses, it was estimated that the final cost of the bridge would be some $81,000 (“The Suspension Bridge,” Covington Journal, February 18, 1854, p. 3). Reopened in May 1854, the bridge was further strengthened and improved in 1867 by Washington Roebling, son of John Roebling, designer of the Covington and Cincinnati Suspension Bridge.

Parts of this article formerly appeared in Tenkotte, Paul A. Rival Cities to Suburbs: Covington and Newport, Kentucky, 1790-1890 (dissertation). Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1989.

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

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