Pieces of the Past
Artifacts, Documents, and Primary Sources
from Letchworth Park History

"High Bridge," Portage New York.

from The Civil Engineer & Architect's Journal, London, 1853

The wooden railroad bridge that once spanned the Portage Gorge has often been described as an engineering "wonder" and as the highest wooden bridge "in the world"! But are these just exaggerations by local folk and tourist brochures?

How did the engineers of the era really regard the Bridge?

We offer an answer by presenting an article that appeared in an 1853 British engineering journal. Written by Canadian engineers, it was published just six months after the first trains passed over the great trestle.

The article is presented in its entirety, followed by the engravings and an image of the journal's cover.

"High Bridge," Portage, New York.

The Buffalo and New York and city Railroad is one of the branch roads which have sprung from the New York and Erie Road, and is the more especially interesting to us as bringing the six-feet gauge to our frontier, and which will at an early date be continued to the mouth of the Niagara River, when it will form one of the many routes of travel which will connect advantageously with the lines of road now being built in Canada. At Portage, the fruitful valley of the Genesee, famed at other points for its gentle slopes and teeming farms, is contracted to a deep and narrow gorge, through which the river dashed over three successive falls of about 350 feet, between almost perpendicular banks of rock, piled in horizontal strata, of from 10 to 30 feet in thickness, to a height immediately below the middle fall of about 800 feet. Thirty yards above the upper fall, at a point where the banks are 800 feet asunder, the railroad crosses at a height of 234 feet above the bed of the river ­ viewed from the foot of the fall, which adds 100 feet to the height of the structure, a passing train, relieved against a clear sky, has a wonderful and beautiful appearance ­ while the view from the train, embracing as it does a large portion of Wyoming, is one of surpassing grandeur.
The bridge was designed by Mr. Silas Seymour, the Chief Engineer to the Company, and the successful economy with which he has succeeded in overcoming the difficulties opposed to him, is entitled of great praise, especially when we take into account the short space of time in which the works were completed. The general design of the bridge will be understood from the engraving. The piers on which the 'trestles' rest are of the best ashlar masonry, of compact sandstone obtained from the banks of the river; their base 75 by 15 feet; they are carried up with a light batter to a height of 30 feet above the bed of the river, and coped with heavy limestone blocks. Upon these are placed the timber trestles, connected with each other in a very secure manner, by a system of braces and girders. The trestles are 190 feet in height, from the top of the piers. At their base they are composed of twenty-one vertical posts, 14 by 14 inches, diminished in number to fifteen at the top; and in size to 12 by 12 inches. The lateral and longitudinal braces, and also the girders, are 6 by 12 inches. Each trestle or pier is calculated to be capable of sustaining a weight of one thousand tons, in addition to its own. The trusses resting on the top, and connecting the several trestles or piers (which are 50 feet from center to center), are 14 feet in depth, and are composed of three framed girders with main counter and sway braces, in the usual manner. On the top of these trusses the track is laid. The whole length of the bridge is 800 feet, and each span, with the exception of that across the channel, which is 54 feet) is 50 feet. The arrangement of the structure is such that, when any particular piece becomes defective, it can be taken out and replaced without disturbing other parts of the bridge. The occurrence of fire, is, therefore, the chief danger to which it is liable, and against such a calamity every precaution is taken. Tanks of water are placed at convenient distances, and watchmen are employed day and night.
The total cost of the bridge was about 35,000l, currency, and the quantity of material employed in its construction is as follows; Masonry, 9200 cubic yards; timber, 135,500 cubic feet; wrought-iron, 49 tons. It was estimated that the cost of a stone viaduct would have been about 250,000l.,the interest of which at 7 per cent., would renew the present structure every two years. It was also estimated that the interest on the cost of a wrought iron tubular bridge, of 500 feet span, with stone piers and suitable approaches, would renew the present bridge every third year. The masonry was commenced on the 1st of July, 1851, and the first locomotive passed over it on the 14th of August, 1852, embracing a period of only thirteen and a half months, a rapidity of construction which speaks volumes for the energy and zeal of the contractors, Messrs. Lauman, Rockafellow, and Moor, who were also the contractors for the whole line of the road, and have long been connected with public works.
The manner in which the piers or trestles were erected may be worthy of notice. They were commenced on the eastern bank, and as each trestle was completed the trusses were placed on them, and the track laid; upon which a traveling crane was advanced, over-reaching the space to the next trestle, and by means of which each stick of timber was let down to its placed, until the whole of the next pier was completed, when the truss was placed and the crane advanced as before.
This is, we believe, the highest timber bridge in the world; and though not notable for the development of any new principle of construction, it is worthy of our notice, for the cheapness, the quickness, and the completeness with which it has obviated a serious obstacle in the way of an importance to us at this moment." -Canadian Journal"

The following paragraph follows the Bridge article in the Journal.

"An Institution of engineers, architects, and other parties connected with science, was formed in Canada in 1849, and incorporate by royal charter under the title of the "Canadian Institute." It appears to be in a thriving state, and has recently started a monthly journal to records its proceedings, which promises to be a work of considerable merit; and, no doubt, will afford the profession in this country an insight into the engineering works of North America. We have this month to record one of its papers (which is given above), and hope to be enabled occasionally to avail ourselves of similar papers, in exchange for those which may be transferred from our columns to the mutual advantage of the professional men of both countries. The bridge illustrated in the annexed Plate affords a proof, among many others, of the energies and talents of the engineers of the United States, and their go-a-head manner of constructing works of magnitude in a very short space of time, and at a minimum cost.) ­Ed. C.E.& A. Journal."




The Civil Engineer & Architect 's Journal....,(London), No 227 Vol XVI February, 1853


For more information see

A Glimpse of the Portage Bridge

Photographs of the Portage Bridge


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all rights reserved by Tom Cook and Tom Breslin December 2004