Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Silver Memorial Bridge turns 40

Today is the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Silver Memorial Bridge between Gallipolis, Ohio, and Henderson, W.Va. Henderson is a small community across the Kanawha River from Point Pleasant, W.Va.

The Silver Memorial Bridge opened two years to the day after the Silver Bridge collapsed into the Ohio River, killing 46 people. A lot has been written about the Silver Bridge, including by me. This time, however, let’s talk about the replacement bridge.

As far as I know, there was not much talk in 1967 about whether the old bridge needed to be replaced. Sure, it was narrow and inadequate, but the late 1960s was not a time when people thought the old bridges over the Ohio needed to be replaced ASAP. Most of the older bridges were considered inadequate, but it was not considered urgent. Of course, that changed with the Silver Bridge collapse.

After the collapse, the need for a new bridge was obvious. The bridge carried U.S. 35 over the Ohio River, and that was a major truck route between Columbus, Ohio, and Charleston, W.Va. Restauranteur Bob Evans made his fortune on that fact. His first restaurant was a place in Gallipolis where truck drivers could eat and drop their trailers for other drivers to take onto the narrower, twistier roads of West Virginia.

To speed up the replacement process, the design of an existing bridge down South -- Louisiana, I think -- was adapted. The new bridge was to be four lanes, making it the first bridge of that width in this part of the Ohio River. Other than bridges built specifically for the interstate highway system, the new bridge may have been the first four-lane highway bridge between Wheeling and Cincinnati. If there was another, I can’t think of it.

Work moved quickly, enabling the new bridge to open on the second anniversary of the Silver Bridge’s demise.

In 1977, the state of West Virginia closed the Silver Memorial Bridge for a few months so it could repair some cracks in the structural steel. Other than that, the bridge has had practically no serious problems.

The Silver Bridge gets a lot of attention, as it should. But the Silver Memorial Bridge has something worth noting, too: It has been in service about six months longer than the Silver Bridge was, and there is no sentiment that it has outlived its usefulness. Thousands of drivers use it each day with little thought as to its safety or its adequacy. The new generation of bridges, which replaced those built in the 1920s, has stayed adequate far longer than its predecessor.

People driving across the new bridge get two good views of the Ohio and Kanawha rivers. Downstream, you see repair docks and fleeting areas on both sides of the Ohio. Looking upriver, you see the m mouth of the Kanawha River, the historic park at the Kanawha's mouth, the Point Pleasant riverfront park and a 100-year-old railroad bridge over the Ohio. If only the Silver Memorial Bridge had a sidewalk, photographers would be very happy. They would probably grumble over which side it would be on instead of the other. It's just the way we are.

One more thing: As a tribute to what happened 42 years ago, the Silver Memorial Bridge retains its silver color. All other new steel bridges built and maintained by West Virginia are painted green, but the Silver Memorial Bridge is allowed to keep its original paint scheme.

One more one more thing: There is another bridge of this design over the Ohio. Back in 1986, the first time I drove up the river past Marietta, Ohio, I was surprised to see a bridge at St. Marys, W.Va., that appeared to be a twin of the Silver Memorial Bridge. And it was. The old bridge at St. Marys was of the same design as the Silver Bridge. It was replaced with a bridge of the same design as the Silver Memorial Bridge, with one exception. The St. Marys bridge has a sidewalk.