Wheeling Suspension Bridge marks 170th

ARCHITECTURAL MARVEL — Local artist Greg Siegwart of Wheeling paints the Wheeling Suspension Bridge on Saturday alongside other artists during a plein air painting party at Heritage Port in conjunction with the Wheeling Suspension Bridge 170th Anniversary Celebration. -- Scott McCloskey

WHEELING — Speaking in character as Charles Ellet Jr., designer of the historic Wheeling Suspension Bridge, Travis Henline, museum project manager for Wheeling Heritage, told a lunchtime crowd who gathered on 12th Street near at Wheeling’s waterfront Saturday about the “crown jewel” of his accomplishments as an engineer in the mid-1800s.

The first-person portrayal was the first of five storytelling accounts about the historic engineering marvel, which was part of the Wheeling 250 committee’s day-long Wheeling Suspension Bridge 170th Anniversary Celebration on Saturday, which was held in conjunction with the 10th annual Ohio Valley Rib & Chicken Cook Off.

“His work touched many many places in our country. … He always referred to Wheeling and the Suspension Bridge as his proudest achievement and his crown jewel,” Henline explained following his portrayal of Ellet.

“This is the oldest continuously used suspension bridge in our country. It is a national historic landmark. We are fortunate here in Wheeling … We are the only city in West Virginia to have two national historic landmarks — that being the Wheeling Suspension Bridge and West Virginia Independence Hall, the former custom house.”

“It was for a short period the longest suspension bridge in the world,” Henline explained.

He said the it took both Virginia and Ohio legislatures to make the Suspension Bridge become a reality. The bridge was completed in 1849, following nearly two years of construction at a cost of $250,000. He said up until that time, travelers had to use ferry boats to cross the Ohio River.

“To that point, you had to follow National Road to the Ohio (River) — you had to ferry across the river which was very difficult and cumbersome. … So that greatly increased the traffic of people, goods, and the postal service heading east and west,” Henline explained. “So we are very proud of our bridge,” he added.

Other storyteller accounts throughout the day included: Collapse of the Bridge in the Great Storm of 1854,” by storyteller Rich Knoblich, and “An Engineering Marvel,” by Christina Schessler, senior architect at McKinley Architecture and Engineering, “Builders of the Bridge: The Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company, by Wheeling 250 Celebration Organizer Jay Frey, and “The State of Pennsylvania vs the Wheeling & Belmont Bridge Company: the lawsuit to tear down the bridge,” by C.J. Kaiser, partner with Phillips, Gardill, Kaiser and Altmeyer.

Despite the Gateway Clipper “Queen” boat from Pittsburgh not being able to dock for the bridge celebration due to the high river level from days of rain earlier in the week, Frey said the weather couldn’t have been better for the bridge celebration and cookoff events.

“It’s the perfect summer day to be out,” Frey commented. “We had a nice beginning this morning with the day-long plein air painting party in the Veteran’s Amphitheater.”

He said the amphitheater provided more than a dozen local artists with a “nice perspective” of the Suspension Bridge. He said the committee hopes to eventually display many of the images on the third floor at Independence Hall in downtown Wheeling.

“Of coarse we have the Ohio Valley Rib and Chicken Cookoff that is providing beverages and food for everyone,” he said.

The event also included live music, craft vendors, and a large fireworks display.

“It is a great day,” Frey added. He said the Wheeling 250 committee is working with the Gateway Clipper Fleet to hopefully reschedule the boat cruise event.

Local Artist Greg Siegwart of Wheeling said he was truly excited about the opportunity to paint the Suspension Bridge along side of other other artists during the waterfront painting party.

“I’m excited about this. … I paint all the time, said Siegwart, as he created the second of two oil paintings of the historic bridge. “It’s good to be around other people doing the same thing. … It’s fun,” he added.

He said when tourists visit Wheeling, one of the first things they ask is, “Where’s the bridge?”