December 20, 2010

First cantilever railway bridge over Niagara Falls – 1883

On this day in 1883, there was a “load test” and a ceremony for the opening of the Michigan Central Railway Bridge, which linked Niagara Falls, Canada, and Niagara Falls, New York.

There had already been a first crossing, complete with dignitaries, on December 6, followed by a second train with newspaper reporters, and a plaque had already been erected. On the 20, in front of a crowd of more than 10,000 people, ten locomotives pulling twelve loaded gravel cars crossed the bridge going one direction while ten locomotives pulling twelve more loaded gravel cars crossed the bridge going the opposite direction. At 12:08 p.m.—the appointed time for the test—the trains passed each other, and both sets of track were fully occupied. The bridge passed the load test without a hitch, and the trains blew their whistles in celebration.

A banquet for 4,000 invited guests was held on the American side, and the rest of the crowd was allowed to walk back and forth across the bridge. (Actually, this bridge was meant for rail travel only, not for pedestrians, and twenty years later a baseball star running along the bridge to catch up with the train fell off to his death!)

For more on this and other bridges, here is a pictorial history of bridges over Niagara Falls. 

What is a cantilever bridge?

  • A cantilever is a beam supported only on one end. Two such cantilevers meet at the center of a cantilever bridge. Below we see the Niagara bridge as it was being built.

  • Explore bridge types here. (Scroll down: the second diagram shows a cantilever bridge.) 

  • Another way cantilevers are used is in architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright's famous house design “Falling Water” uses cantilevers to create overhanging balconies. Check out this architectural wonder here.  (I clicked “Multimedia” and then “Seasonal Tour” for some awesome photos!)

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