STEUBENVILLE - Nearly 84 years after residents of Steubenville and Weirton celebrated the opening of the Fort Steuben Bridge with parades, processions and ribbon cuttings, the final curtain is coming down on the aged span with much less fanfare.
Tuesday morning, strategically located explosives will be detonated by demolition specialists and the bridge will quite simply cease to be.
Originally privately owned, the Fort Steuben Bridge cost $1 million, took more than a year to construct and shaved as much as 15 miles from the Pittsburgh-to-Columbus route. It was to have been named Stanton Bridge in honor of the late Edwin M. Stanton, who had been President Lincoln's Secretary of War, but at the last minute officials in Steubenville decided to call it the "Fort Steuben" bridge instead.
CELEBRATING THE OPENING — In was a joyous day in Steubenville nearly 84 years ago when a dedication day parade was held to mark the opening of the Fort Steuben Bridge. - Contributed
"They crossed on the ferry boat and drove horse and buggy when May & Leopold first furnished homes across the river," the retailer, founded in 1902, had said in an ad published that day. "Now we have the magnificent Fort Steuben Bridge."
Weirton Steel Co. offered its felicitations to residents of both communities, and said the bridge "should create a closer affiliation between the two cities and is a further indication of the progressiveness of the community."
On the Ohio side, Wheeling Steel Corp., said "industry thrives through transportation and communication ... and the new bridge is another forward step," while the Ohio Power Co. pointed out that transportation and power go hand-in-hand. "Without them, progress, development and the general well-being of the community cannot prosper," Ohio Power said.
Other ads touted the 800 acres of scenic vistas that could be had for $25 to $35 a foot front for homesites in the Half Moon Allotment.
"I think most people would probably agree that without the Fort Steuben Bridge, you wouldn't really have a Half Moon Industrial Park, which is one-third of the tax base for Brooke County," said John Brown, director of Brooke-Hancock-Jefferson Metropolitan Planning Commission. "Freedom Way obviously developed because of the bridge."
The bridge alleviated congestion in business commercial areas, like Market Street in Steubenville, and eliminated tough-to-navigate twists, turns and grades.
Of course, in those days Freedom Way was known as "Ferry Road." Local historian Dennis Jones said there were three ferries - Upper Ferry, Middle Ferry and Lower Ferry. "Upper Ferry was pretty close to where the bridge went in," he said. "The road that went up there was known as 'Ferry Road.' It was renamed Freedom Way back in the 1950s."
Jones said the industrial park began to evolve several decades later. Prior to that, "it was mostly undeveloped," he said. "There was an airport and farms, (there's no record) of anything industrial being there."
"That bridge probably enabled a lot of trucks, a lot of people, to go" east and west, said Gene DelGreco, a former BHJ planner. "Everything back there was farmland to begin with, then a lot of industries went in there. People specifically located there to use Weirton Steel products."
Weirton resident Bill Cattrell's grandfather, C.S. Cattrell, was mayor of what was then known as Hollidays Cove when the bridge opened, and his aunt, Helen, was designated "Miss WestVirginia" and helped cut the ribbon.
"You've got to remember, back then it was called 'Ferry Road' and it was the way to get to Pittsburgh or west to Columbus," he said. "It was the way to go. The bridge would have been an important line for east-west traffic."
Cattrell said his father, C.R. Cattrell, was about 9 when the bridge opened. Though he doesn't remember much of what his father told him, he did remember a small landing strip on the West Virginia side where planes used to land.
On the day the bridge was dedicated, in fact, a Weirton merchant was killed and two others injured when their plane "crashed over Half Moon farm," according to news stories in the Aug. 29, 1928, edition of the Herald-Star.
Weirton resident Gene DelGreco recalls attending a planning session early in his career, and "the No. 1 priority was getting a new bridge built" to replace the aging Fort Steuben span.
"Public officials on both sides of the river were in support of it," he said. "It took years, and finally, both states pulling together with the backing of a lot of important people to get it done. I think a lot of people would recall just how terrible it was to get (through) Weirton to Steubenville, so I would imagine the old bridge solved the problems they had in 1928, but by 1978 those problems had multiplied and they needed a new one."
Despite being a newcomer, Pat Ford, executive director of the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle, said it's obvious the bridge was "probably one of the most vital transportation links between West Virginia and Ohio, if not the transportation link."
"From what I understand, after it was built they saw the explosion of business and industry in Half Moon," he said. "What's interesting is if you owned a business or industry in Half Moon, for years you could go out your front door and go right across the river whereas now, you're looking at what, a six-mile circuitous route to get to that same point where they would have gotten off the (Fort Steuben) bridge. Clearly, it made it very attractive for Weirton Steel and all the other industries in Half Moon."
And in those days, he said both local mills - Weirton Steel on the West Virginia side and Wheeling Steel on the Ohio side - employed thousands of people. "From talking to people who grew up in the area and worked around here, the road was packed on a daily basis, there'd be car after car."
The much wider, much more modern Veterans Memorial Bridge opened on May 4, 1990, and the Fort Steuben fell out of favor with most motorists. In 2009 it was closed altogether after a dip in the floor of the bridge was spotted during routine maintenance, rendering it unsafe.
"I was at a meeting Friday with representatives of Half Moon industries, and one of them pointed out that a whole generation of young people who now live in the Weirton area don't know where or what Half Moon Industrial Park is now," Ford said. "When the Fort Steuben Bridge was open, all of the traffic in the region drove by the park. Once the bridge closed, people didn't really have a reason to drive down Freedom Way or into the park. When you talk about the businesses we have back there, the younger generations have a blank look on their faces - they don't know what the industrial park is or even where it is."
They also talked about having to replace truck windows and mirrors on almost a daily basis because the bridge was so narrow, "trucks would hug the center and cars would go as far to the right as they could."
"They also talked about how people used to sit in a traffic jam for 45 minutes just to get across the bridge," he said. "Now there's a whole new generation that doesn't know how much a part of history it was."