Although practically everyone agrees that we need a new I-71/75 Ohio River bridge connecting Covington and Cincinnati, aligning the competing interests and identifying funding will take years of hard work. No one should be surprised. Complex projects take time and patient leadership.

The construction of the first bridge across the Ohio River at Cincinnati, the Suspension Bridge, is an excellent case study. It took almost 25 years of debate and maneuvering before construction began. A five-year delay, caused by a deep recession and the Civil War, followed.

Trapping Tall Stacks

Bridge proposals, some fanciful, date from as early as 1815. From the beginning, however, powerful forces such as steamboat owners and captains thought it was unnecessary or even dangerous. They feared that during periods of low water, the bridge piers would create dangerous new sandbars, and during floods, the structures would shut down commerce by stopping steamboats that couldn't pass because of their tall stacks.

Some Cincinnati business and civic leaders feared that the proposed bridge would collapse, leaving debris cluttering the foot of one of the city's major streets. This was not an entirely unreasonable concern, given the track record of early suspension bridges.

In fact, a small suspension span across the Licking River between Newport and Covington opened in December 1853, only to collapse three weeks later because of vibration patterns initiated by a crossing herd of cattle. The Ohio Legislature prohibited any future bridge from directly connecting Vine Strreet in Cincinnati and Scott Street in Covington, forcing it to be sited mid-block with elaborate and expensive approaches, preventing the creation of what designer John Roebling believed would have become one of the "finest and most magnificent avenues on the continent."

Fresh Energy, Solutions

In the end, the proposed Covington-Cincinnati Suspension Bridge was transformed from ideas and sketches into masonry and steel only due to the innovative leadership and dogged determination of Amos Shinkle and Roebling.

Within a decade of his arrival in Covington in 1846, Shinkle emerged as the city's most prominent businessman and civic leader. When he became a director of the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge Company in 1856, Shinkle provided fresh energy and organization for the long-debated project. Most importantly, in the summer of 1856, he traveled to Waterloo, Iowa, to personally persuade Roebling to become the chief project engineer.

Roebling, an immigrant from Prussia, had 25 years of experience building progressively longer and more complex suspension spans, and was the recognized leader in the science of wire suspension bridges.

Roebling and Shinkle systematically addressed the complaints of the bridge opponents, sometimes directly, and sometime with compromises.

On the simplest level, Roebling created an innovation to allow steamboat builders to "break the stacks" so their boats could pass beneath bridges in all but the worst floods. More importantly, he altered an earlier design to eliminate a mid-river pier opposed by the steamboat faction. The result was the longest suspension span (1,057 feet) ever built. Finally, he perfected a new system of diagonal stays to control destructive vibrations.

Construction of the piers began in September 1856, but was halted after the 1858 construction season by a deep recession, which merged with the chaos of the Civil War. Work on the bridge did not resume until May 1863, and was not completed until December 1866.

This is a 1907 photo of the Cincinnati-Covington Suspension Bridge that was renamed the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge in 1983 to honor the designer of the project.


The company paid for the bridge by collecting tolls (originally, 3 cents per pedestrian; 2 cents per hog; 10 cents per horse and wagon). Tolls continued until the Brent Spence Bridge opened in November 1963.

The story of the Covington and Cincinnati Suspension Bridge reveals the qualities successful leaders employ when faced with complex challenges.

First, they must have patience. Second, progress can only be made through cooperation across geographical, social and political barriers. Third, some compromises, like Cincinnati's insistence that the bridge not connect Vine and Scott streets, may be necessary, but have unfortunate consequences for the life of a project.

Finally, complex projects demand that leaders be willing to embrace innovation and bear the implications of risk