Spanning The Sky

August 27, 2019By Brian Aloisi

The secret life of the New River Gorge train bridge

New River Railroad Bridge.
New River Railroad Bridge.

Towering above the New River Gorge near Highway 27 in Scott County stands a bridge most locals know simply as the New River Gorge train bridge. At 1,068 feet long and 389 feet tall, the bridge is not only the tallest train bridge in the state but also an impressive addition to the hilly and wooded landscape surrounding it.

Still, locals accustomed to the sight might be surprised to learn that people from across the country come to Scott County every year just to see the bridge.

Elegance in a Rustic Setting

Calvin Sneed, a retired TV anchorman from Chattanooga, is one of those people. Sneed is a self-confessed bridge hunter — a term for people whose hobby is studying the architecture and history of bridges. He’s become an expert of sorts and has been invited to speak at bridge hunter events. He has also served on four committees to save bridges in danger of demolition.

The New River Gorge train bridge holds a special place in his heart. “It’s the elegance of that bridge against its surroundings that makes it so special,” says Sneed, who estimates he’s taken thousands of pictures of the structure. “It’s just so majestic.”

Sneed describes the design as a continuous three-span Warren deck truss. The deck truss is the steel framework that supports the bridge from underneath, while a Warren truss is a common type of triangular design. A British engineer with the same name patented the style in the mid-1800s. “Span” refers to the distance between the piers that hold it up.

“The first thing you’ll notice on the New River Gorge train bridge are the piers,” Sneed says. “You’re going to notice how thick those things are. The piers are notable because they start off wide at the bottom and start narrowing as they rise to the steel deck truss near the top. Sculptured piers like that lend an air of elegance to any bridge. The rebar inside the concrete gives them support and holds the shape and helps distribute the weight.”

And while the engineering points fascinate him, Sneed always returns to the sheer rightness of the structure itself. “It’s just the fact that it looks like it belongs there,” he says. “It’s as if it has always been there.”

Bridge to Everywhere

In fact, the New River Gorge train bridge is relatively young, he says. Construction ended in 1963, and it sits on a section of the busy Norfolk Southern railroad that runs between Cincinnati and Chattanooga. That rail line was already more than 80 years old when the New River Gorge train bridge became part of it.

The City of Cincinnati completed construction on the original railroad in 1880 as river barge traffic began losing its commercial appeal. The city still owns the railroad today and leases it to a subsidiary. As the years went on, however, the tunnels that ran through the hills and hollers of Kentucky and Tennessee were slowing down trains and bringing progress to a grinding halt. The New River Gorge train bridge was part of a realignment project on a section of that rail line, and it eliminated some tunnel travel, making it faster to ship goods back and forth.

Now, about 50 trains use the rail line every day, transporting everything from Detroit automobiles to Iowa corn to Florida oranges. The goods could end up at a local retailer or at one across the world. “Because of what it carries and its location, that railroad is probably one of the busiest north-south routes in the Eastern U.S.,” Sneed says.

Spanning the Sky magazine article