NORFOLK, VA – March 7, 2013 – March 4 marked the 100-year anniversary of the completion of the modern version of Norfolk Southern’s bridge over the Ohio River between South Point, Ohio, and Kenova, West Virginia – a dependable link in the nation’s freight rail transportation infrastructure.
The bridge, on NS’ Pocahontas Division main line, carries essential freight rail traffic and supports economic development in the Tri-State region and Ohio River Valley. “It’s an important component of the Heartland Corridor, NS’ groundbreaking public-private partnership that connects Virginia’s ports to Midwestern markets to expedite the movement of international commerce,” said Mickey Runyon, NS assistant division superintendent, Bluefield, W.Va. “At the same time, it handles a steady amount of grain, coal, and general merchandise. With some 35 trains a day, and double-stack clearance, it’s a workhorse.”‘
“The bridge is crucial to the operations of the Pocahontas Division,” added Gary Shepard, NS division superintendent, Bluefield. “It is an example of the type of quality and hard work produced by our valued employees.”
Although the bridge is 100, its durability is unquestioned. NS bridge forces monitor and maintain it for reliability and safety. “The bridge has undergone major upgrades several times over the past century, and its excellent condition is a reflection of the industry’s continual investment – without taxpayer dollars – to give the nation an economic competitive edge,” said Jim Carter, NS chief engineer, Atlanta. “Like everything on the railroad, it is well-designed and systematically well-maintained. We fully expect it to be serviceable for another 100 years.”
Major river crossings by railroad bridges are relatively few in number across the country. NS’ Ohio River bridge is nearly 4,000 feet long and 82 feet above normal water level, and it creates a memorable scene, especially as the early-morning sun reflects downstream.
The bridge originally was designed with a single track in 1892 by NS predecessor Norfolk and Western Railway, although it was constructed with piers wide enough to accommodate future double-track.
As nearby coal fields developed and the demand for coal in the Midwest grew, traffic increased, meaning more wear and tear. So, N&W rebuilt the bridge with double-track and a stronger overall structure. Updates included pier modifications and new trusses, completed entirely around the existing structure to allow train traffic to continue during construction.
It was on March 4, 1913 – 100 years ago – that work crews met in the middle to connect the ends of the main channel truss. The first train crossed the newly completed double-track at 10 a.m., June 9. The bridge was “completely finished” in September, when workers finished painting. “Overall, it was a remarkable achievement under traffic,” Carter said. “To read the accounts is a humbling experience.”
It was the longest structure on the railroad and had taken 21.6 million pounds of steel and $1 million to upgrade. Its importance was not just physical but strategic. As N&W’s gateway to the West, the bridge was said to have been one of the Germans’ targets on American soil during both World Wars. During WWII, saboteurs were caught nearby, and a Coast Guard unit was detailed to protect it. “Had any of these dastardly efforts come to fruition, it would have impeded the movement of coal, vital war materials, and soldiers traveling to military and manufacturing installations,” said Tim Hensley, a noted railway historian who lives within walking distance of the bridge’s West Virginia approach.
One of the more unusual sights on the bridge occurred Nov. 15, 1967, when the world’s longest, heaviest freight train traversed it. With 500 loaded coal cars and six locomotives, this five-mile train was operated by N&W in a contest with the Pennsylvania Railroad.
“Today, the Kenova bridge is an integral part of the landscape – a beautiful, historic, and key part of our national rail system,” Hensley said. “I see it as a link from the past to the future.”