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Saturday, September 3, 2016

Suspension Span Design Once Proposed For the New River Gorge Bridge

A suspension bridge was one of proposed design alternatives considered in 1968 for the New River Gorge Bridge. In that year, the State Road Commission of West Virginia directed the consulting firm, Michael Baker, Jr., Inc., to proceed with the design of an 11-mile-long section of highway under the Appalachian Development Highway Program and including a 3,000-foot-long bridge spanning an 850-foot deep gorge, near Fayetteville, WV, in Fayette County.

By 1970, plans were being advanced for construction of the New River Bridge envisioned as a 2,400-foot long suspension span -- depicted in the artist/illustrator's rendering below. That same year, the photo was published in the March 10 edition of the The Charleston Gazette with a brief description of the suspension bridge that would be "the highest bridge east of Mississippi River.

Proposed New River Gorge Suspension Bridge
A suspension span was proposed for the New River Gorge Bridge in 1970

The a suspension bridge design was just one of several types of bridge considered during the preliminary design phase, that also included a deck truss bridge, and an anchored, truss arch bridge. However, sometime prior to early-1972, the consulting firm determined the steel arch design would be more economical and would better adapt to the construction area.

In October of 1973, William Domico, Bridge Design Section Head, West Virginia Dept. of Highway, was quoted as saying: "The job was so unusual, that from the beginning, many steel companies were involved. The best bridge minds in the country talked about this bridge and gave recommendations on how it should be constructed. The result was that the arch was selected instead of the trestle or suspension types."

New River Gorge Bridge Prosed Steel-Arch Design
Artist's rendering of the proposed New River Gorge Bridge from 1973

Preliminary site work had begun on the bridge in late-1973.  By early-1974, site preparation was underway and plans were being made to begin erecting two cableways on opposite sides of the New River Gorge.

Heavy-duty steel cables were to be suspended from towers anchored to the ground on each side of the gorge. Then two trolleys would be mounted on the cables which would be used to some 22,000 tons of steel into place for the structure. This unique erection highline, or cableway system, with a 3,500-foot span, was then the largest ever used, consisting of two 50-ton capacity trolleys operating on four main steel cables, suspended from twin 330-foot towers erected in pairs on each side of the gorge. In all, some 22 miles of wire rope and heavy-duty steel cable were involved in the cableway system.

The first structural steel for the New River Gorge Bridge was erected on June 14, 1974 by the U. S. Steel's American Bridge Division. Using the special cableway hoisting system, ironworkers secured a 30-foot-high steel box section in place on a concrete foundation located on the north side of the New River Gorge.

New River Gorge Bridge Cableway
Illustration showing twin cableway used to transport structural steel
Steel erection of the New River Gorge Bridge was completed on November 1, 1976.  Following paving and other finishing touches, the West Virginia Department of Highways officially planned to open the bridge the following fall.

The dedication and opening of the New River Gorge Bridge took place on the bridge on October 22, 1977, with a crowd of more than 30,000 onlookers present, many of whom walked across the 3,030 foot span following the dedication ceremony. Long lines of parked cars extended in each direction for several miles along the expressway. At both ends of the bridge, a carnival atmosphere prevailed, as vendors in small mobile stands dispensed drinks, foodstuffs and souvenirs. Country musician, Charlie McCoy, played the National Anthem on a harmonica. This original celebration of the completion of the New River Gorge Bridge lead to the annual Bridge Day Festival, first observed on November 8, 1980.

New River Gorge Bridge 1977
The New River Gorge Bridge, following completion in the fall of 1977


[1] The Baker Engineer, Vol. XXV, 1977, Special Edition prepared especially for New River Banking & Trust Co., Michael Baker Corp.

[2]  Beckley Post Herald article, New River Span To Have Largest Arch In World, Oct. 10, 1973

[3] Charleston Gazette article, A Big Hole to Fill With a Bridge, July 7, 1973

[4]  Fayette Tribune article, Largest Steel-Arch Bridge 'Designed and Ready To Go', April 24, 1972

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