Bridges

142 years old and still in service: Buffalo’s oldest bridge

InternationalRRBridge

International Railroad Bridge, opened in 1873.

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:
https://archive.org/details/cihm_05136
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

TG445 .I6
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.

Spotlight Artifact: Niagara Gorge Suspension Basket

Basket, Suspension 610

Basket, Suspension Iron Judge T.G. Hulett Ca. 1847

In 1846, New York State granted a charter to the International Bridge Company to build a suspension bridge across the Niagara River. At the same time, Canada granted a charter to the Niagara Falls Bridge Company of Canada West for the same purpose. The two companies came together to form a joint board of directors and hired Charles Ellet, Jr., a noted engineer and bridge builder from Philadelphia to build a wire railroad suspension bridge across the Niagara river about two miles below the Falls. It was Charles Ellet, Jr. who approached Theodore Graves Hulett about overseeing the iron works for the bridge and came to him with the first task of establishing a convenient means of communication across the gorge.

The Niagara gorge suspension basket has always drawn visitors’ attention. Constructed to carry people, with their tools and messages, across the Niagara gorge below the Falls, Ellet originally planned for this car to be made of wood. He wanted to build two towers on either bank with a wire cable stretched between and a car or basket suspended from the cable, large and strong enough to carry at least two people.  T.G. Hulett eventually convinced Ellet that a basket made of iron, with wooden seats, would be light enough to cross the wire with the use of iron rollers, but be strong enough to support passengers. The first passage was in the spring of 1848 and was made by Charles Ellet, Jr. This basket carried workmen and civilians alike, and it is estimated that approximately three-fourths of the passengers were women.

Rebecca Justinger
Registrar

*This article was featured in The Buffalo History Museum‘s Fall 2015 issue of The Album.