Thousands of Thruway drivers pass it around the clock with a quick glance at best. It has been in service for over 51,000 days, built before the invention of the automobile, airplane, and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. It shares a birth year with the first typewriter to have a QWERTY keyboard. It opened for business in 1873 during Ulysses Grant’s administration as the International Railroad Bridge.
The need for a rail crossing between Buffalo and Fort Erie became evident after the Suspension Bridge opened in Niagara Falls (1854) and the area was soon overwhelmed by rail traffic. Negotiations between the State of New York and the Dominion Parliament began in 1857 but were interrupted by the Civil War. Finally, in 1870, Congress and Parliament agreed on terms and budgeted $1,500,000 for the project. The International Bridge Company, formed by the Grand Trunk Railroad, was awarded a charter to design and construct the bridge. The Gzowski-MacPherson Company won the contract and began work, supervised by Polish-Canadian engineer Sir Casimir Gzowski (1813-1898).
Gzowski must have been a gifted child, because he entered the Military Engineering College at Kremnitz at age 9. As a young man, he took part in Polish uprisings against the Russian forces. Exiled to New York after the defeat of these efforts, Gzowski learned English, studied law, and eventually settled in Toronto, where he supervised public works on roads and harbors in Ontario and Montreal and developed an interest in rail engineering.
When Gzowski began work on the International Bridge, a crossing at this point was considered impossible. The currents of the Niagara River were too swift and treacherous, the water levels too unpredictable, the ice build-up too heavy, and the storms too intense. Gzowski was almost 60 when he took on the challenge.
In spite of construction challenges and setbacks, the 1.11 mile bridge opened on November 3, 1873 without the loss of any lives. It quickly became one of the busiest international crossing points in North America. In 1890, Gzowski was knighted by Queen Victoria.
While the bridge mostly carried freight trains, until 1934 it also carried one daily passenger car. It had wooden plank sidewalks until 1900, when the trusses were fully redesigned and replaced. Its busiest day was July 10, 1916, when 264 trains crossed. Today it serves 15 trains per day and is a handsome, sturdy reminder of 19th century engineering prowess.
Read more about it:
Gzowski, Casimir Stanislaus
Description of the International Bridge: Constructed over the Niagara River, near Fort Erie, Canada, and Buffalo, U.S. of America
Toronto: Copp, Clark & Co., 1873
The international railroad bridge, Fort Erie to Buffalo, 1873-1973 and Colonel Casimir S. Gzowski
Buffalo, NY : Published by Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario, Engineering Institute of Canada, N.Y. State Society of Professional Engineers, Erie-Niagara Section, American Society of Civil Engineers, Buffalo Section, ©1973
Cynthia Van Ness, MLS
Director of Library & Archives
*This article was featured in The Buffalo History Museum‘s Fall 2015 issue of The Album.