The John A. Roebling Bridge: Fixing a national historic landmark takes time and patience

The John A. Roebling Bridge, better known in these parts as the Suspension Bridge, is about to undergo necessary maintenance that might be akin to the owner of a home patching the roof, sealing the foundation, and repairing the gutters of the dwelling place. Not flashy stuff, but essential.

In the case of the bridge, however, we’re talking about a national historic landmark, an icon of our metropolis. One does not simply slap some caulk and paint on it and call it a day.

So how do you repair a 154-year-old historic landmark and symbol of civic pride that stands exposed to our temperamental weather 24 hours day?

Very carefully, as it turns out.

The bridge, which normally carries 8,000 vehicles a day across the Ohio River, will be closed for 10 months while the work goes on.

Why so long?

“There’s a lot do too,” says Tony Akers. He’s overseeing the work for LRT Restoration Technologies, the Monroe, Ohio-based company that won the $4.7 million contract to do the work.

“We’re not only restoring the stone, we're stabilizing the roadway,” he says. “There’s protection and preservation work and that’s going to take a long time.”
The bridge was named a national historic landmark in 1975. With that recognition and status, Akers explains, comes federal guidelines for restoration and rehabilitation that have been proscribed by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The construction materials used must match as closely as possible the original material. Any deteriorated or missing features need to be restored to their original appearance. Features and building materials from the original should be preserved, and things that were added later that don’t mesh with the original construction should be removed.
Workers will scour the north and south towers repairing and patching the stonework.
One of the most painstaking and exacting portions of the current project will be the restoration and surgical repair of several thousand square feet of masonry using a technique known as “dutchman.” The technique is used to repair cracked or eroded stone that can allow water to enter, then freeze and expand, which can cause cause the face of the stone to break off.

It happens.

In 2013, a big piece of sandstone fell from the bridge’s north tower, hitting no one, but causing the span to be shut down for emergency repairs.  

The dutchman restoration process involves fabricating and sizing the replacement pieces, matching them to original, setting them, and then fixing them to the original.
Because the stone is not being entirely replaced, the restoration company needs to match the color, texture, and grain size of the original as closely as possible.

The quarry that John Roebling and his engineers used in the 19th century to source the original stone is no longer open, so Akers and his engineering team found a family-owned quarry in southeast Ohio, Waller Brothers Stone Co. in Scioto County. Stone slabs of various sizes and depths will be shipped to the job site for engineers to choose from.

Two crews will scour each of the north and south towers to search for stone that needs repairing. That will be the lion’s share of the work, Akers says. Although the bridge is currently open for pedestrians, the sidewalks may need to be closed for a while too while this work is under way, he says.

“Hundreds of people walk through the job site every day,” he says. That may not always be safe, so the bridge may be closed to pedestrians too at times, Akers says.

There’s road work to be done too. The entire approach to the bridge on the Cincinnati side will be rebuilt, Akers says. The archways underneath the road house anchorage points for the suspension cables that hold up the bridge. The stone archways will be tuckpointed and revitalized to support the roadway.

The bridge has been carrying traffic since the Johnson Administration – Andrew Johnson – so periodic repairs are essential – just as they are on a 154-year-old home -- and they can be expensive.

In the 1990s, the state of Kentucky undertook a massive renovation of the bridge that included structural repairs and improved roofing for the anchor houses. The renovation included adding replicas of the original turrets atop the towers, with the turret finials being covered in gold leaf. The total cost of that renovation was more than $10 million, according to the Covington-Cincinnati Suspension Bridge Committee, a citizens group dedicated to preserving and improving the bridge.

In 2010, a cleaning and painting project involved stripping all the trusses and cables down to bare metal, and encapsulating the work area to prevent lead paint from contaminating the air and water. The project cost $16.24 million, the CCSBC says. The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet had a special acrylic paint formulated, a shade now known as “Roebling Blue.”

In 2007, an inspection revealed the need to reduce the bridge’s weight limit to eleven tons. Fully loaded, 40-ton, semi-tractor trailers were not anticipated in John Roebling’s day.  Now, the Southbank Shuttle trolley is about the heaviest vehicle permitted to traverse the Ohio on the Suspension Bridge.

But last November, when the Brent Spence Bridge closed after a fiery collision on that span, truckers started using the Suspension Bridge to get across the river. So, less than 24 hours after the Brent Spence was closed, Covington police shut down the Roebling Bridge “due to the inordinate amount of tractor trailer operators who are refusing to follow the weight limit,” the department said.

The Roebling Bridge is a visible reminder of history, and of the truism that good things take time. It took Roebling and his son, Washington, 10 years to complete the bridge, interrupted by the financial panic of 1857 and the start of the Civil War in 1861. It formally opened to traffic on Jan. 1, 1867, and was the longest suspension bridge in the world.

Roebling was then called to Brooklyn to begin work on a suspension bridge over the East River. When the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, it eclipsed the Covington span as the longest suspension bridge on the globe, at just over a mile long.
Akers and his team have worked on historic renovations before, including churches and the two-year construction and renovation of Union Terminal in Cincinnati.

This is their first crack at the Roebling Bridge. "It’s a really challenging one that has a lot of aspects to it," he says. "It’s a pretty wide scope. But it's going to restore it in such a way that it will last a whole lot longer."


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David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.