Book Reviews -- the Wheeling Bridge Case: Its Significance in American Law and Technology by Elizabeth Brand Monroe

Article excerpt

The Wheeling Bridge Case: Its Significance in American Law and Technology. By ELIZABETH BRAND MONROE. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992. xvi, 268 pp. $45.00.

PROCLAIMED by continual late afternoon cannonading and by a thousand-lamp nighttime illumination attached to the twisted wire cables over the Ohio River, the Wheeling, Virginia, suspension bridge opened on 15 November 1849 amid acclaim and contention. Viewing the spectacle from a distance, Senator Henry Clay ominously exulted, "Take that down, you might as well try to take down the rainbow." This bridge, a contemporary marvel, was the first application of innovative engineering to fashion structures to cross the dendritic river pattern of western Virginia's Allegheny Plateau and Ohio River tributaries. Designed and built by Charles Ellet, Jr., the Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company's work suspended a clear 1,000-foot span from downtown Wheeling to Zane's Island at a maximum ninety-foot clearance over low water. While the bridge was being built and after its completion, competing economic interests in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania legally attempted to destroy Virginia's economic rainbow.

The ostensible reasons for opposition seemed simple enough. The bridge at high water blocked the passage of seven of more than 230 steamboats if they refused to lower or hinge their smokestacks. This periodic obstruction of interstate commerce to Pittsburgh allegedly reduced Pennsylvania's revenues from its Main Line Canal. More serious considerations existed. Real and projected railroads reached toward the Ohio River through Virginia and Pennsylvania. The selection of a particular Ohio River crossing might ensure the location's economic future and area dominance at the expense of rival towns. The Wheeling bridge posed an immediate economic advantage to Virginia and Maryland as construction of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad inched westward (completed to Wheeling in 1852).

The facts and outcome of the case were relatively simple, but the motivations, the political maneuvering, the legal and strategic environment, and the arguments were complex. …