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Harpers Ferry Covered Bridge

Washington & Jefferson (WV) MD-21-01x & WV-19-01x Potomac River & C&O Canal Unk 8* Approx 1,051' 1837 & 1842 1861**
*7 original spans, including Government Canal Span; additional span added in 1842 during modification. Total length of spans is for all 8 spans.
**7 spans across the Potomac River destroyed by Confederate Army in June 1861. B&O Railroad reports claim Canal Span was not destroyed in 1861 but was lost in September 1862 when General Lee invaded Maryland during the Antietam Campaign, although photos and engravings reflect the Canal Span was lost in 1861.

Harpers Ferry Covered Bridge Photo Gallery

(click photo to enlarge)

Harpers Ferry Bridge about 1850 Harpers Ferry Bridge 1858 Harpers Ferry Bridge about 1860 Harpers Ferry Bridge 1861 Harpers Ferry Bridge 1861

About 1850


About 1860



Harpers Ferry Bridge 1861 Harpers Weekly Article June 1861 Harpers Weekly Article July 1861 Harpers Ferry Piers 2001


06-1861 Article

07-1861 Article

2001 Piers

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at Harpers Ferry

In 1834, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was in the process of extending its railway tracks from Point of Rocks to Maryland Heights with plans to cross the Potomac River to Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). They reached the site of the crossing on December 1, 1834.
A turnpike covered bridge, Wager's Bridge, built in 1824, crossed the Potomac at the location the B&O preferred to lay their tracks. The bridge and the shoreline approach on both sides of the river were owned by the Wager family, decendents of Robert Harper. The railroad approached the Wager family about purchasing their bridge with plans to build an addition to it providing for both railroad and road traffic. However, there were some problems with using Wager's Bridge. Wager's Bridge reached the Maryland shore at a 90 degree angle making it difficult for the B&O to negotiate the turn to proceed across the river. The B&O also considered the bridge to be unsafe. Gerald Wager, spokesman for the Wager family was difficult to deal with, constantly creating problems with the B&O executives, including demanding high compensation for tolls if the B&O used his bridge for their railroad line. After careful consideration and some persuasion from Moncure Robinson, the head engineer of the Winchester and Potomac Railroad, the B&O decided that Wager's Bridge would not accommodate a practical turn for the tracks of the railroad and decided to build their own bridge. B&O chief engineer Jonathan Knight gave the job of designing a new bridge to Benjamin Latrobe, Jr., and hired Lewis Wernwag to build it.¹

A New Bridge is Built

Latrobe and Wernwag estimated the new bridge would cost $85,000. The location for the bridge was slightly downstream from Wager's Bridge and the alignment at the Maryland shore was more practical for the railways. Construction of the bridge began in 1835. Each span consisted of three parallel trusses to provide double lanes. The turnpike portion of the bridge was on the upstream, or north side of the bridge and the railroad was on the downstream, or south side.
Page 4 of the Ninth Annual Report of the President and Directors to the Stockholders of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company,1835 detailed the building of the bridge with projected lengths and spans:
Various circumstances prevented the Board, for some time, from taking measures to connect the main stem with the Railroad of the Winchester and Potomac Company. They finally determined, however, to construct a substantial viaduct across the Potomac, on the prolonged trace of the Winchester road, and capable of permitting the passage of locomotive engines, with their usual trains, to which the present bridge [Wager's] is wholly incompetent. Contracts for this purpose have already been entered into, and it is expected that the viaduct will be completed early in the ensuing summer. The piers, six in number, with the abutments, will be of undressed masonry, and the superstructure of wood. Its entire length, including the portion crossing the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, will be 830 feet.
The Report also mentions the bridge was designed by B.H. Latrobe; the Superintendent of graduation, masonry and construction is Casper W. Wever, contractors are Charles Wilson for the masonry and Lewis Wernwag for the superstructure of wood. The 1836 "Annual Report" included an agreement with the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal that the bridge "shall be erected at the elevation of at least seventeen feet above the water line of the canal."
Latrobe did not use Lewis Wernwag's truss system. Morever, it resembled a Howe truss with verticals in tension and diagonals in compression. The dominant feature was the Schauffhausen-type truss arch braces which radiated from the abutment out to a progressively thicker top chord. The Schauffhausen bridge was over the Rhine River built by a German carpenter Ulric Grubenmann. Latrobe's truss on the new bridge at Harpers Ferry is referred to as a Latrobian truss. The bridge opened to turnpike traffic in January 1837, although it was not covered when it opened. In October 1837 carpenters weatherboarded and roofed the span over the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The other trusses would remain uncovered through much of the winter.
Although Latrobe thought the Harpers Ferry Bridge, also known as the B&O Bridge, was a beautiful structure, he soon realized that the lumber was of "rough stuff." No sooner had the bridge opened and he knew it would require repairs. The weight of the superstructure had already cracked the heads of the piers and the cause was poor masonry. Some of the foundations were washing away and most of the piers in the river would have to be completely rebuilt. Repairs were costly. The B&O spent $5,596 on repairs in 1837 and another $7,270 in 1838.
In 1842, the B&O added a "Y" span to the bridge on the Harpers Ferry side of the river thereby making the bridge eight spans in total counting the Canal span. The Winchester and Potomac refused to grant trackage rights to the B&O. The B&O had planned to connect head-on with the Winchester & Potomac, not to lead upriver along the Potomac western shoreline. Latrobe had to rebuild the Harpers Ferry end of the new bridge, placing a junction switch 265 feet out from the shore, with a sharply curved new span to carry the tracks in the direction of the Potomac River shore.²
The Thirty-Fourth "Annual Report" of the B&O, 1860 listed all of the spans and lengths along with a side note stating the total length of the bridge is 1,051 feet. No matter how the figures are added up it does not equal 1,051 feet but it does give lengths for eight spans including the Canal span and nine spans if the Winchester span is included:
Government Canal Span, 150 feet, 1 span of wood
Harper's Ferry Bridge, 122 feet, 1 span of wood
Harper's Ferry Bridge, 76 feet, 1 span of wood
Harper's Ferry Bridge, 126.9 feet, 1 span of wood
Harper's Ferry Bridge, 127 feet, 1 span of wood
Harper's Ferry Bridge, 126.6 feet, 1 span of wood
Harper's Ferry Bridge, 126.6 feet, 1 span of wood
Harper's Ferry Bridge, 130.6 feet, 1 span of wood
Winchester Span, 124 feet, 1 span of wood
The Civil War took its toll on many bridges across the Potomac River and C&O Canal. At 4am on June 14, 1861, Stonewall Jackson's Confederate Army blew up Harpers Ferry Bridge.
Chester G. Hearn's book, Six Years of Hell details the events leading up to destruction of the Harpers Ferry Bridge.
Harpers Ferry was crucial to both the Union and Confederate Armies. Union Major General Robert Patterson believed that the first great battle of the war would be at Harpers Ferry. Other Union leaders differed with him. General Jackson of the Confederate Army instructed his brigade in the fine art of demolition. At 4am on June 14, 1861, a gigantic explosion shattered the slumber of the town's residents as the high road and Baltimore and Ohio bridges toppled into the river. Within an hour the historic structures lay in charred ruins on the bed of the Potomac. Jackson's men then went to work on the long span that connected the Winchester and Potomac spur to the main line of the B&O. With the railroad disabled and the town virtually destroyed, Jackson posted guards at the town and marched out of town to fight another battle at Bunker Hill.
The Thirty-Fifth "Annual Report" of the B&O reported on the destruction of the bridge. Based on the report of destroyed spans, the Canal Span was not destroyed, although newspaper accounts claim it was destroyed and photos of the area after the destruction do not show the Canal Span still standing:
June 14th, 1861-Harper's Ferry covered wooden bridge, 7 spans, one of 122 feet, one of 76, four of 127, and one of 131 feet in length. Also flooring, rail-joist, cross-ties, double track and iron hand railing of 70 spans, 15 feet each, on iron trestling, through arsenal yard, destroyed.
The 1861 report also listed a cost of over $18,000 to build a new bridge at Harper's Ferry but only showed $21 to repair the Canal Bridge.
General Lee of the Confederate Army invaded Maryland in September 1862 during what was declared the Antietam Campaign. The B&O was again interrupted when the Confederate Army destroyed many of its bridges and property. The Thirty-Sixth "Annual Report" of the B&O, p56, gave an account of the destruction of the Canal Bridge at Harper's Ferry:
September 17th, 1862-Government Canal Bridge at Harper's Ferry destroyed. This was a covered wooden bridge, 148 feet span, and the only one between Monocacy and Cumberland that had remained intact up to this period.
The railroad and turnpike bridge was rebuilt nine times during the Civil War, although it was never rebuilt as a covered wooden structure.³
Rebuilt after the Confederate Army destroyed the bridge in June 1861.
Rebuilt after the flood of April 1862.
Rebuilt after the flood of June 1862.
Rebuilt after the Confederate Army destroyed the main bridge and Canal Bridge in September 1862.
Rebuilt after the Union Army destroyed the bridge in July 1863.
Rebuilt after the flood of April 1864.
Rebuilt after the flood of May 1864.
Rebuilt after the Confederate Army destroyed it in July 1864.
Rebuilt after the flood of September 1864.
The piers of the old covered bridge and its subsequent bridges can still be seen in the Potomac River.

Significance of The Harpers Ferry Bridge Just Prior to the Civil War

Harpers Ferry Bridge played a significant role in the Civil War. The following information was taken from a website, now defunct about John Brown's Raid at Harpers Ferry:
The first shots in John Brown's infamous raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, in October 1859, were fired at a train from the darkness of a covered bridge. Brown and his 18 anti-slavery revolutionaries hid in the big "S" shaped covered railroad bridge over the Potomac River and apparently planned to also use the bridge as their route of escape. The station's porter, a freed man, went to investigate the shots and in doing so allowed himself to be silhouetted against the opening of the bridge. When he turned to find his way back, he was shot in the back, becoming the raid's first casualty. Another Black man, one of John Brown's own men, was the second to die in a raid intended to free slaves.
In the ensuing battle at Harpers Ferry, John Brown captured the federal armory. From a Washington Post book, Escape Plans:
John Brown's Raid initially meant well, but as the day dawned and the townspeople became aware of the armory's capture, confusion led to chaos and bloodshed. Shots were fired. Local militia began to arrive. Vastly outnumbered, John Brown retreated into the town's fire station with hostages. The mayor, mistaken for a sharpshooter, was killed, as was a local businessman and two raiders sent out to negotiate an escape.
By the time a trainload of U.S. Marines arrived, under command of Robert E. Lee, the crowd was vengeful, and many were drunk. Battering the fire station door with sledge hammers and a large ladder, the Marines brought the invasion to a conclusion in a matter of minutes. John Brown was beaten into unconsciousness and later was hanged at Charles Town for treason, murder and inciting slaves to rebellion.

¹ Michael W. Caplinger,Bridges Over Time: A Technological Context for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Main Stem at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (West Virginia Institute for the History of Technology and Industrial Archaeology at West Virginia University: 1997), p. 9-11.

² Ibid; p.18-29.

³ Geo. B. Abdill, Civil War Railroads, Pictorial Story of The Iron Horse-1861 thru 1865 (Superior Publishing Company: 1961), p. 24.

UPDATED: 01/09/2014. Rewritten to include information from multiple Annual Report of the President and Directors to the Stockholders of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company. Amount of spans revised and information added about when Canal Bridge was destroyed.

Reference Notes

Annual Report of The President and Director to the Stockholders of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company, various years' reports.

Michael W. Caplinger, Bridges Over Time: A Technological Context for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Main Stem at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (West Virginia Institute for the History of Technology and Industrial Archaeology at West Virginia University: 1997).

Geo. B. Abdill,Civil War Railroads, Pictorial Story of The Iron Horse-1861 thru 1865 (Superior Publishing Company: 1961).

James V. Murfin, From the Riot & Tumult, Harpers Ferry (Harpers Ferry Historical Association, Inc., Harpers Ferry, West Virginia: 1989).

Chester G. Hearn, Six Years of Hell, Harpers Ferry During The Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, LA: 1996).

James D. Dilts, The Great Road, The Building of the Baltimore & Ohio, The Nation's First Railroad, 1828-1853. (Stanford University Press, Stanford, California: 1993).

Daniel Carroll Toomey, The Civil War in Maryland. (Toomey Press, Baltimore, Maryland: 2000).

Festus P. Summers, The Baltimore and Ohio in The Civil War (Stan Clark Military Books, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: 1993).

John F. Stover, History of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, Indiana: 1987).

Roy Meredith and Arthur Meredith, Mr. Lincoln's Military Railroads, A Pictoriak History of the United States Civil War Railroads, 1861-1865 (W.W.Norton & Company, New York: 1979).

Susan Cooke Soderberg, A Guide to Civil War Sites in Maryland, Blue and Gray In a Border State Beidel Printing House, Shippensburg, PA: 1998).

Dolly Nasby, Harpers Ferry, Then and Now (Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC: 2007).

Bruce Roberts, Harper's Ferry in Pictures (Heritage Printers, Inc., Charlotte, NC: 1960).

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