Sunday, December 15, 2019

Silver Memorial Bridge at 50

Today is the 52nd anniversary of the collapse of the Silver Bridge, but it's also the 50th anniversary of the day its replacement, the Silver Memorial Bridge, opened to traffic about a mile downstream.

Soon after the old bridge fell, President Lyndon Johnson and others pledged to have another open within two years. It's not as though this was a project that had been in the works. In the late 1960s, very few Ohio River bridges in this part of the river were targeted for replacement. The new bridges we got were mainly those built for the interstate highway system, which was still under construction.

The late 1960s were also the days before the EPA, NEPA and other agencies and laws that required all sorts of studies and public meetings before a bridge could be built. There was no worry about how the new bridge would affect the pink mucket pearly mussel, the Indiana bat, the arctic peregrine falcon, the Kirtland warbler or other species whose known habitat or range was close to the bridge.

If I recall correctly, time was saved by building the bridge downstream from the mouth of  the Kanawha River at Point Pleasant. That meant both ends and approaches were built on land that was mostly vacant. It also meant the city of Point Pleasant lost a lot of vehicle traffic. Also, I seem to recall that construction was accelerated because plans for an already existing bridge were adapted and used for the Silver Memorial Bridge.

When the bridge opened, it was the first four-lane Ohio River bridge between Cincinnati and at least Marietta and possibly further up the river. In the half century since, we've seen a lot of four-lane bridges built, but this was the first in this part of the valley.

The bridge had its problems in its early days. As with several bridges of its era, it was built of a type of steel that developed problems in its butt weld cracks (I have to practice to get it right), and it was closed for repairs for several months in the summer of 1977. The state of West Virginia provided free ferry service while the bridge was closed. By then I had a license and a car and developed an enjoyment of Ohio River ferries.

The Silver Bridge probably would have been replaced and demolished by now. Its site is marked by a memorial in Point Pleasant. As many people know, it had a sister bridge of similar design at St. Marys, W.Va., known as the Hi Carpenter Bridge. After the Silver Bridge fell and engineers determined it had a critical design flaw, the St. Marys bridge was closed, demolished and replaced with another bridge about a mile downstream. The new bridge is almost a twin of the Silver Memorial Bridge except that it has a sidewalk on the side facing St. Marys, while the Silver Memorial Bridge has none.

The Silver Memorial Bridge was painted silver in tribute to its predecessor, and in subsequent repaintings has keptsthat color. It has served its market well these 50 years, and it should be noted the Silver Memorial Bridge has been in service longer than the original Silver Bridge was.

Photo: From summer 1985 or possibly October of that year. Taken at Tu-Endie-Wie park in Point Pleasant. The M/V Mr. Jesse Barr of G&C Towing exits the Kanawha River with several barges loaded with coal.