Thursday, January 10, 2013

Narrow fit

First, a correction. I had been led to believe that the Ironton-Russell Bridge, which opened in 1922, was the first highway bridge over the Ohio River between Wheeling and Cincinnati. That was wrong, and I am sorry I repeated the error. The first such bridge was the old suspension bridge linking Parkersburg, W.Va., and Belpre, Ohio, at about Mile 184. That bridge was built in 1915-16 and demolished in 1980, when it was replaced by a new four-lane bridge.

But beside the old suspension bridge was a railroad bridge that still stands. If my information is correct, the railroad bridge was built in 1870-71, which would explain the numerous spans and piers, as you can see here.

Could you imaging being a towboat pilot and trying to get a large tow through that? The horizontal clearance on the main span in the navigation channel is 326.5 feet. Figure a full-sized tow is about 1,000 feet long, not counting the boat, and about 105 feet wide. If you go through the middle, that gives you about 100 feet on each side.

Now imagine you're pushing upbound in high water, which means you also have a stronger current, with 15 loads. Or imagine you're downbound pushing 15 empties on a windy day, when your barges might have two feet of steel below the water line and 10 feet or more above.

This photo was taken looking upriver. Right behind me is a sharp bend to the right.

As I thought about this more, I recalled something an expert in security said at a conference in Ironton, Ohio, back in the 1980s. He said if you want to slow people down in your driveway, put those little spiral-stemmed reflectors or something else on each side. Although you have not changed the width of the driveway, people will slow down to avoid hitting the reflectors, even if they have plenty of room otherwise. So now what I want to do is go back to Parkersburg and sit at the park for a while, waiting for a boat to come by so I can watch it go between the bridge piers.

Back to the question at hand: The first time I noticed this area was in May 1980 when I was riding the M/V Tri-State as a guest of Ashland Oil. The captain griped about how the bridges were built where they were, if I recall correctly. Either he or the relief pilot asked why bridges were so often built in bends in the river. My guess would be that's where the villages, towns and cities are, meaning that's where the roads are, meaning that's where the bridges are.

Looking at this, it's easy to tell that the Coast Guard would not approve such a design today. But materials and navigation needs are much different today than in 1870. (All together now: Duuuuh). The railroad bridges in my familiar part of the river are much older than the highway bridges. I think the newest would be the big one at Sciotoville, Ohio, below the Greenup Locks and Dam (Mile 341).

I'm glad I haven't had to steer a boat through there. I don't know if it's the worst bridge to navigate on the Ohio, but it has to rank up there somewhere.

And this got me to thinking about some other bridges in this part of the river. But that's for another blog entry.