If you were a passenger on the Buffalo Branch of the Erie Railroad, you would probably be given a handbill as you approached the Genesee Valley. "Passengers should not fail to see the longest and highest wooden bridge in the United States.." the handbill proclaimed, ".. if not the world, and one of the grandest views on the Western Continent!" (see image)
Actually you wouldn't be able to miss the bridge, for your train passed over it. On good days, if you were on schedule, the train might even stop, giving passengers a chance to venture out on the wooden walkways next to the track (see image) or descend steps into the wooden bowels of the Bridge itself. (see image) Far below were the tumbling waters of the Upper Falls, while to the north rose the mists of the Middle Falls and the Portage cliffs beyond.
Indeed, a visit to the Portage Wooden High Bridge was not easily forgotten.
Work on the Bridge began on July 1st, 1851. The construction of such a massive engineering project had not been easy. Stone piers, held in place with nearly ten thousand yards of masonry were laid in the riverbed, and slowly the great wooden towers were raised by the scores of Irish workmen hired for the project. It was hard and dangerous work, and more than one worker was killed by falling rocks or careless steps that resulted in being swept over the Upper Falls.
Finally the Bridge was finished. It towered a total of 234 feet above the Upper Falls, and was 800 feet long. A railroad station was built on the east end of the Bridge, as was the Cascade House, a hotel for local sightseers. The project had cost nearly two hundred thousand dollars, and had consumed an estimated two hundred and fifty acres of pine forest.
The Bridge was opened on August 14, 1852, the first test train crossing the Bridge with little incident beyond a "riot" which broke out among the workmen clamoring for a seat on the first train. Dedication ceremonies were held on the 25th, complete with a grand banquet in on the flats below the Bridge, and speeches by New York Governor Washington Hunt and President Loder of the Erie Railroad Company.
Thousands gathered for those opening ceremonies, and tens of thousands more visited the Bridge over the next twenty-three years. Among those that gazed out on the Genesee Valley from deck of the Bridge was the Buffalo businessman, William Pryor Letchworth. (see view from bridge)
As the years and the mists of the Upper Falls began to take their toll, and by the 1870's there was talk about replacing the Bridge with an iron one. The Erie Railroad floated the idea, but found that the fare-paying public was opposed to tearing down the grand Wooden Bridge.
In the end it was a natural disaster, not the Erie Railroad Company, that claimed the Portage Bridge. On the night of May 5-6, 1875 watchman William T. Davis inspected the Bridge after a westbound passenger train crossed shortly before 11PM. An hour later he greeted his replacement, Pardon Earl, and headed home. At about 12:45 AM he looked back at the Bridge, and, according to his account, didn't see anything other than "the usual signals."
The next train was eastbound, and passed Earl's little watchhouse on the east end of the Bridge around 12:50 AM. Earl walked across to the west end, and then returned back. It was then he noticed a small blaze near the west end of the bridge. He ran quickly to the fire and tried to stamp it out, but broke through the decking. Next he tried to fight the growing fire with a hose connected to a water pipe, but wasn't able to turn the value on due to corrosion to the metal. The Bridge was doomed.
Mr. Letchworth awoke in his bedroom at the Glen Iris about three hours later. He quickly went out on the lawn to see what was happening and later reported "the spectacle presented at precisely four o'clock was fearfully grand, every timber in the Bridge seemed then to be ignited, and an open network of the fire was stretched across the upper end of the Valley." A half-hour later the mighty Bridge collapsed, sending a shower of sparks through the Glen. Only the fact that a light rain was now falling saved the buildings on the Glen Iris Estate. (see complete account)
People from miles around came to see the smoking ruins of the Wooden Bridge, including officials of the Erie Railroad.(see image) The company was determined to rebuild, and this time in iron. They moved swiftly, contracting the ironwork to the Watson Manufacturing Co of Paterson NJ only four days after the fire. So quick was their response that rumors, heard in the Valley even today, had the Erie Railroad Company setting the fire, and that the iron was already milled and in warehouses waiting for delivery to the site. Actually, according to the chief engineer George Morison, the ironworkers had to wait for the iron, delaying the raising of the first tower till June 13th.
Morison also stated that the final design for the new bridge was "prepared in the hurry of a pressing necessity", and that he and the other engineers "were obliged to conform in a measure to the plan of the original timber structure." For example the masonry that had been laid for the original bridge made them extend the width of each of the six towers from the desired 25 or 30 feet to a full 50 feet. But Morison and his crew proceeded quickly, the last tower being erected in only eleven days. (see image) The Bridge was ready for testing by July 31st, and had only cost half as much as the original.
Would the strange looking iron structure, built so quickly and cheaply actually work? No one in the large crowd that gathered at the Bridge on that hot July afternoon knew for sure. First a single locomotive inched across from the east to the west. Then it was joined by a second, which after crossing, was hooked to another engine. Finally six engines crossed the Bridge together, flags waving, to the cheers and salutes of the crowd. (see test train)
More than a century has passed since the Iron "Spider" Bridge opened for railroad traffic. Addition work has been done on the Bridge, tracks, and foundations, but it is the same Bridge that still stands today. Although the Bridge is private property and the trains that cross it no longer stop to let their passengers walk high above the Upper Falls, tourists to Letchworth Park still marvel on the manmade wonder called the Portage Bridge.
Anderson, Genesee Echoes
Dardenne, Bob and Tom Cook. "The Bridge". Upstate Magazine, Democrat and Chronicle, September 18, 1977.
Morison, George S.. The New Portage Bridge. Paper Presented November 27th, 1875 to American Society of Civil Engineers. (booklet in Wm P Letchworth Museum Collection)
Also see "High Bridge" Portage, NY", an engineering account published in 1853
Be sure to see the views of the Wooden and Iron Bridge in our Historic Photo album!