WORKING ON THE RAILROAD : THE ROLE OF THE KING BRIDGE COMPANY
By Allan King Sloan
While the King Bridge Company advertised that it had the largest highway bridge building works in the 1890s, it was also building a bridges for the nation’s expending railroad system. From the late 1880s to the time the company went out of business in the early 1920s, railroads all over North America were among the company’s important clients, even though advertising for King bridges did not appear in the railroad publications of the day as it did for the company’s major competitors.
From the day he founded the company in 1858, Zenas King nurtured a close relationship with the local railroad operators because their facilities were needed to ship the bridge components manufactured in the Cleveland factory to construction sites all over North America. As a result the King Bridge Company plant was sited adjacent to the confluence of rail lines that were to define Cleveland’s role as a major manufacturing and distribution center. Zenas King had also recruited a influential railroad executive, Daniel P. Eells, to serve on the company’s first Board of Directors and his tenure was the longest lasting on the board with the exception of King family members. When the company began its ill-fated adventure to build additional plants in Kansas in the early 1870s, it developed a close working relationship with the Santa Fe Railroad, both as a shipper of its products and as a partner in various real estate ventures.
This collaboration with the railroads resulted in contracts for the company to produce bridges of a wide variety of designs and capabilities. The company’s inventory for railroad clients included standard (Pratt) trusses, swing and deck bridges, viaducts, trestles and beam girder bridges. By the turn of the century the company had also teamed up with the Scherzer Lift Bridge Company of Chicago to construct bascule bridges for the railroads.
Most of the King built railroad bridges have disappeared. Some still standing have been converted to non-railroad use. However, a few are still active, including a number of solid but unspectacular beam girder bridges. The most remarkable King bridge still in service is “Old Nan”, a Scherzer bascule bridge built in 1905 across the Niantic River in Connecticut that is still used by the Acela high speed trains running daily between Boston and New York City.
The King Bridge Company sales catalogues published in the 1880s and 1890s provide the information and pictures for the bridges built before the turn of the century. Since we have no knowledge of catalogues published in the 20th century, documentation has come from other sources, including the railroads own records, historical writings, archival material, and most importantly from information provided by bridge enthusiasts to the www.kingbridgeco.com website.
THE CATALOGUE BRIDGES
The sales catalogues of the 1880s and 1890s featured a wide variety of bridges built for railroad companies. Most were located in the states of Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, and Illinois, but some were located as far west as Iowa and Montana. The pictures below have been copied from these old catalogues.
The company’s sales catalogues published in the 1880s included only a few railroad bridges. The 170 foot swing bridge built for the Valley Railway Company in Cleveland and pictured above was one of the first to be prominently featured.
The pre 1890 catalogues also listed two bridges built for the New York, Lackawanna & Western Railroad, which included a 403 foot, four span high truss and a 253 foot swing bridge. In addition, there were a number of single span and one five span truss bridges built for the Houston, East &West Texas Railroad Company, including a three span high truss bridge across the Sabine River in Logansport Louisiana.
However, it was in the 1890s that the King Bridge Company catalogues began to feature their work for the railroad companies in earnest. The pictures below show these bridges arranged by type of structural design.
Three of the four through truss bridges pictured above were built in 1896 for railroads in northern Ohio. The multi-span structures were built across the Sandusky River at Fremont, the Maumee River at Napoleon, and the single span across Chagrin River at Willoughby The bridge in the lower right frame had five spans with a 300 foot swing span in the center. It was built for the P.& P.U. Railroad and crossed the Illinois River at Peoria.
The first three of the four bridges pictured above were single span structures built in Indiana, West Virginia, near Fairmount, and Montana at Fort Custer. The fourth double track in the lower right frame was four span bridge built for the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad in Buffalo, New York.
Trestles were among the most spectacular of the structures built for the railroads. The one pictured above was built for the Cleveland, Lorain and Western Railroad near Flushing, Ohio. It consisted of sixteen spans for a total length of 540 feet. The trestle pictured below was built in 1897 for the Wallkill Valley Branch of the New York Central’s West Shore Railroad across the Esopus Creek in Rosendale, New York to replace an earlier structure. The is the only one of the railroad bridges appearing in King Bridge Company catalogues that is still standing today, as we will describe later.
BEAM GIRDER BRIDGES DECK TRUSS BRIDGES
Deck trusses and beam girder bridges were popular solutions for the railroads in the 1890s as both forms were sturdy and dependable, if not visually dramatic. The beam girders on the left were built, from top to bottom, in Cleveland, Ohio, Erie, Pennsylvania, and Dimondale, Michigan. The deck trusses were built, from top to bottom, in Willoughby and Norwalk, Ohio and for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad near Rouceverte, West Virginia
THE WEST’S ONLY ELEVATED RAILWAY
The most unusual project for the King Bridge Company in the 1890s was the contract to build an elevated railway in Sioux City, Iowa, a town that had ambitions to become the Chicago or New York City west of the Mississippi River. This was a project started in 1887 by a group of nine local businessmen each invested $1000 apiece to build an “El” to provide a sanitary way to cross the mix of stockyards and railroad lines that dominated the center of town. The King Bridge Company constructed the two mile elevated roadway from beam girders hoisted into place by a moving crane. The El was opened for business in 1891 and carried passengers to and from home sites for two years, until the operation went bankrupt in 1893. When the Floyd River flooded in 1892, the El was used by many of the local town residents people to escape from drowning.
SWING BRIDGES FOR THE RAILROADS
Since many railroads ran in alignments at the same elevation as rivers and canals, swing bridges provided the easiest way to cross these watercourses without blocking navigation channels. This was before the advent of bascule and lift bridges. The 210 foot double track swing bridge pictured below is an example an important product of the King Bridge Company. It was built in 1895 across the Calumet River in South Chicago, Illinois and was in operation for many years in an area with heavy volumes of rail traffic.
Without doubt, the most notable of the King swing bridges was the four track bridge built for the New York Central across the Harlem River in New York City in 1895.
This bridge was designed by the well-known engineer, Albert Boller who as a consultant for the City of New York, was responsible for the design of all the moveable bridges across the Harlem River. He is credited with the design of the University Avenue swing bridge also built by the King Bridge Company in 1895 and originally located across the Harlem River Ship Canal at Knightsbridge Avenue.
This bridge was known as the Park Avenue Bridge and consisted of a swing span of 389 feet and four fixed trusses of lengths varying from 131 to 185 feet. The cost of the bridge was shared by the City and the Vanderbilt interests and was used for close to 60 years by the New York Central and New Haven Railroads.
In 1954 the swing bridge was replaced by the lift bridge that is in operation today.
As the company entered the new century, its business for the railroads continued to be strong even though catalogues seemed to be absent from its sales strategy. We have found no evidence that the company published catalogues after about 1898. As a result, what we know about the railroad bridges of the last two decades of the company’s operation comes from other sources, including the railroads own records, historical writings, archival material, and most importantly from information provided by bridge enthusiasts to the www.kingbridgeco.com website. Remarkably, a number of King built railroad bridges still stand and there are representatives of most every type of bridge design includes in the old catalogues.
THE LAST OF THE RAILROAD SWINGS
The Hojack Bridge across the Genesee River in Rochester, New York, pictured on the right above, was built in 1905 to the same design as the Calumet River Bridge in South Chicago, shown in the catalogue picture on the left. It is the last remaining railroad swing bridge built by the King Bridge Company and is about to disappear unless saved by a miracle. Because these swing bridges were balanced on supports constructed in the middle of the river, they tend to narrow the channels for watercraft. While this situation was tolerated when the bridges were in constant use by rail traffic, when they were abandoned they were considered to be hazards to navigation. The U.S. Coast Guard has ordered the Hojack bridge to be removed by Conrail, the current owner.
THE LAST OF THE RAILROAD TRESTLES
The only railroad bridge appearing in the company catalogues that we can confirm is still standing is the Rosendale Viaduct, pictured above. When the rail service was abandoned on the old Wallkill Valley Railroad line, the abutting property owner was able to acquire the viaduct. It has been converted for pedestrian use as part of a rail trail and is used to provide spectacular views of Esopus Creek and the lovely village of Rosendale, in Ulster County.
THE LAST OF THE SINGLE SPAN TRUSSES
The picture on the right, sent to us by Stephen Taylor of Austin Texas, is a standard through truss bridge originally built for the Texas Central Railroad in 1906 near Clariette, Erath County, Texas. It is still standing today and the original rail bed was converted to a county road. It sill has its King Bridge Company plate hidden behind the leaves on the right side end post. The bridge very closely resembles the railway bridge on the left pictured in the company catalogues of the 1890s, which crossed the Big Horn River at Fort Custer, Montana and is no longer in existence.
THE LAST OF THE RAILROAD DECK BRIDGES
The famous up-side-down railroad bridge across the New York State Barge (Erie) Canal in Lockport, near Buffalo, pictured right above, is probably one of the last remaining of the deck trusses built by the King Bridge Company. Its design is similar to the deck bridge in Willoughby, Ohio, pictured on the left. It was built in 1902 for the New York Central Railroad on the Buffalo to Rochester line and is still in use today now crossed by the occasional excursion or local freight train. The 124 foot deck truss was the longest of the three spans crossing the canal. Verification of the builder was found in the records of the New York Central found in the National Archives. Tom Callahan, owner of a local business and some of the property adjacent to the bridge is leading efforts to restore the footbridge along side the track, traditionally one of the best places to view the five step locks of the canal, one of the areas important tourist attractions.
THE LAST OF THE MULTI SPAN BRIDGES WITH A MOVEABLE CENTER
The King Bridge Company was called upon by the railroads to build multi-span bridges with central swing spans to allow for river navigation. A number of these were built mainly after the turn of the century. The picture on the left above was a multi- span railroad bridge that once stood over the Illinois River in Peoria. The picture on the right above is a recent photo of the St. Francisville Bridge across the Wabash River between Illinois and Indiana that once carried the famous “Wabash Cannonball”. It is still in use as a single lane road bridge and is in private ownership. It had a center moveable span which is now in a fixed position . More details on the very interesting history of this bridge can be found in the MOVEABLE BRIDGES article in the HISTORY section of our website. The spectacular shot below is the Portage Lake Bridge in Houghton, Michigan. It is a similar type multi-span structure was removed some years ago. More pictures of it can be found in FORMER BRIDGES under Michigan.
THE LAST OF THE BASCULE BRIDGES
These two bascule bridges built by the King Bridge Company in collaboration with the Scherzer Lift Bridge Company of Chicago are still standing today. On the left is the 200 foot bridge built for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1907 across the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. No longer in use, it is now part of the permanent exhibition of historic bridges on display in the Cleveland Flats. The bridge on the right is “Old Nan”, built in 1907 across the Niatic River near New London, Connecticut that still in use by AMTRAK, including the high speed Boston to New York service. However its active days may be numbered. More on these two bridges can be found in the MOVEABLE BRIDGES article in the HISTORY section of our website.
BEAM GIRDER BRIDGES – STILL IN OPERATION
Of all the bridges built by the King Bridge Company for the railroads, it is the solid but visually uninteresting beam girder that has lasted until today. These bridges became the main product of the company in the 20th century and appeared to have been produced in abundance. Many are still in active use and can be seen, some with their bridge plates, in and around Cleveland and Lorain, Ohio, Rochester and Auburn, New York , and on Cape Cod, where an old King beam girder is the last railroad bridge remaining. It is still used in the summer by excursion trains running between Hyannis and Sandwich.
The catalogue picture above left is a beam girder bridge over Forrest Street in Cleveland. The photograph on the right above shows a beam girder about to be shipped from the King Bridge Company plant to an unknown destination. On the left below is a picture of a beam girder still in use by CSX across Brown Street in Rochester. On the right below is a more decorative beam girder built in 1912 and still standing and in regular use by the Norfolk and Southern Railroad across Holyoke Road in Cleveland.
RAILS TO TRAILS – THE NEW REUSE
This is a spectacular picture of the Belmar Bridge across the Allegheny River near Franklin, Pennsylvania. It is a 1,361 foot long structure which was built for the Jamestown, Franklin and Clearfield Railroad in 1906 by the King Bridge Company under a subcontract to the Thomas McNally Company of Pittsburgh. The bridge is now part of the East Sandy Creek Bicycle Train run by the Allegheny Valley Trails Association. For more information check the link to Daniel Allward’s site at www.venangoil.com.
There are other examples of rail to trail conversions, including the Tunnel Hill State Trail in Southern Illinois between Harrisburg and Karnak. There are five King bridges originally built in 1912 for the Old Big Four Railroad that are now used by hikers and bikers through one of the most picturesque areas of the state. The trail itself is a living history of railroad bridge engineering.
 When the Company was forced to give up its western manufacturing operations in Topeka, Kansas in 1873, the plant was sold to the Santa Fe Railroad which used it as a repair facility for its engines. See article by Larry Joakins in Kansas Preservation, the newsletter of the Kansas State Historical Society, Vol. III, No. 3, March-April, 1991.
 From an article by B. Paul Chicoine in Frontier Times Magazine, January, 1981 Vol. 55, No. 1.
 The history of this bridge is documented in The Bridges of New York City by Sharon Reier, published by Dover Publications in 1977. pages 82 ff.