The Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge stood from 1855 to 1897 across the Niagara River and was the world's first working railway suspension bridge. It spanned 825 feet and stood 2.5 miles downstream of Niagara Falls, where it connected Niagara Falls, Ontario to Niagara Falls, New York.
In the years before the first bridge was built over the Niagara River, the river was crossed entirely by boats. Powered by steam engines, vessels ferried people and carriages across the raging river at calmer points of the water. One of these vessels was the Maid of the Mist, the first tourist boat to traverse the Niagara River. Named after a local legend, the steamer began service in 1846. The site for the Suspension Bridge was half a mile from the Maid of the Mist's landings. The selection of the bridge site was based more on aesthetics than technical ease; it was the narrowest point of the gorge that allowed a full view of the falls from the American side.
William Merritt was the first individual to propose the construction of a bridge spanning the Whirlpool. It was Merritt who planned and built the first Welland Canal. This made it possible for ships to avoid the Niagara Falls. The first obstacle was to create a line of communication, followed by a solid line to establish a link to the American side, since establishing a link by water was very dangerous. The width of the area of gorge was 800 feet apart. One of the suggestions for this problem involved flying a kite across the river. A contest was held, with a five dollar prize, to see who could fly a kite across the Niagara Gorge. A young American boy won the contest on the second day of the competition flying his kite from the Canadian shoreline. The string of his kite was fastened to a tree on the American shoreline and it was pulled across by light cord attached. They later tried a heavier cord, then a rope, and finally a wire cable.
The world’s first railway Suspension Bridge was designed by John Roebling. Work on this bridge began in 1852 and was completed in 1855.The new bridge accommodated trains, carriages, and individuals. It was 821 feet in length and cost $400,000 to complete. The first locomotive of the Great Western Railway, “London”, described as “a mammoth English freight engine” crossed the bridge successfully with no vibration on March 8, 1855. Later, Roebling would go on to build another suspension bridge, The Brooklyn Bridge in 1875 over the Hudson River between Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The Suspension Bridge was a border crossing between Canada and the United States, and it played significant roles in the histories of the Niagara region and the two countries. The railroads brought a large influx of trade and tourists into the region around the Niagara Falls. In the time leading to the American Civil War, the Underground Railroad helped slaves in the United States escape across the Suspension Bridge to freedom in Canada. After the war, the bridge became a symbol of inspiration to Americans, encouraging them to rebuild their country and pushing them to quickly industrialize their nation.
The Niagara Falls Railway Suspension Bridge remained until the late 1890’s when it was removed and replaced by a steel arch bridge. The steel arch bridge is still around today, although it is closed and unused. It is beside the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge used by Nexus commuters.