Face Lift

Cleveland's movable marvels get a makeover.

History in the making: The original Columbus Road Bridge roadway floats into place.
History in the making: The original Columbus Road Bridge roadway floats into place.
How do you repair an aging latticework structure like the Columbus Road Bridge, one of the distinctive movable bridges that have become the trademark of the Flats?

Very carefully.

Besides the open holes over the water, which the workers must negotiate like cats -- a life preserver hangs tied to the railing, just in case -- there is the constant challenge of keeping the bridge in precise balance. That job falls to project supervisor Rich Skube, a sturdy man in a hard hat, shaggy beard, and worn-limp flannel. He makes sure that the weight of the deck matches the two giant lead counterweights that lift the bridge.

"It's a constant, all-day process," says Skube, noting that entire sections of roadway are continually moved on and off the deck.

Skube has been striking this balance since October, when the Columbus Road Bridge was closed for $1.2 million in "interim repairs" to the road deck, sidewalks, and some steel girders. Besides finding an odd girder here and there in need of unexpected replacement, the construction has gone smoothly, and Skube expects the bridge to reopen near its scheduled date of May 15.

Those repairs should sustain the bridge another 5 to 10 years. After that, the city plans to replace all the metal, machinery, and electrical systems between the two towers, a $20 million endeavor. "That kind of overhaul has never been done on the Columbus Road Bridge," notes Mark Ricchiuto, director of Cleveland's public service department. Almost all the bridge's mechanisms, including its motors, are original to the 60-year-old structure.

The overhaul is part of a larger maintenance effort that will eventually lead to reconstructing all six of the movable bridges spanning the Cuyahoga. In May, work is scheduled to begin on the West Third Street Bridge ramp, closed six months ago because of structural problems in the concrete columns. By the end of the year, the 70-year-old Eagle Avenue Bridge, Cleveland's oldest vertical lift bridge, will be under interim reconstruction. Two years later, the West Third Street Bridge gets a comprehensive makeover, followed by the Columbus Road Bridge. According to Randy DuVaul, commissioner of engineering and construction for the city's public service department, the bridges will keep their original towers, while everything in between will be replaced.

The history of the Columbus Road Bridge stretches back beyond Cleveland's industrial heyday to the year 1835, when Cleveland and Ohio City were separate villages and intense rivals. To avoid the toll at Ohio City's floating Center Street Bridge, Clevelanders built a covered bridge at Columbus Road -- the first permanent bridge across the Cuyahoga and probably the only covered bridge in the city's history. The new bridge diverted some traffic from Ohio City, and Cleveland cut loose its half of the Center Street Bridge to divert the rest. In the brief but bitter fight that followed, dubbed the Bridge War of 1837, both bridges were set ablaze.

The present structure, a vertical lift bridge, was built in 1940. Workers for the Wisconsin Bridge and Iron Company framed most of the central span, which is graded to follow the slant of the river, on two barges downstream. The completed roadway was then towed into place and attached to the piers.

Massive and imposing at 136 feet tall, the bridge's two towers are intricately constructed. Crossed beams and slender cables hold 200-ton lead counterweights that are dropped by two relatively small motors (a mere 150 horsepower each), pulling the roadway straight up 97 feet, allowing giant ships to pass underneath. The whole process is nearly silent and takes about one minute. During construction, ships that require the bridge to move must give 12-hour notice of their passage.

Mechanical bridges like these are rare, especially in such concentration. The Center Street swing bridge is one of the few working examples of its type in the world. Like so many other structures in Cleveland, the rich collection of movable bridges is not only symbolic of the city's industrial foundation, but a lively working part of it.

"They keep the city going," says Ricchiuto. "Without bridges that go up and down, it would be impossible to get such large and tall ships down the river." Not to mention trucks carrying heavy materials -- salt, coal, steel, stone, aggregate -- across the Cuyahoga.

As the Flats have developed over the past two decades from a strictly industrial area to an entertainment center and burgeoning neighborhood as well, these mechanical bridges have borne a much heavier and more diverse load. In fact, at the mayor's insistence, an 18-month transportation study to investigate ways of separating the trucks from the recreational traffic bound for bars, restaurants, shops, and homes around the Flats will soon be under way.

"The bridges down there are more important than ever," says Ricchiuto.

For now, though, the Columbus Road Bridge seems quite static. A handful of men labor in its shadows, dwarfed by the soaring height of its towers. The noise they make laying and welding steel girders is nothing compared to the heavy trucks that would ordinarily roar across it in a day. As two men in greasy sweatshirts guide a steel girder into place, the bridge offers no hint of turmoil. "These days, it just looks like a giant Erector Set," says DuVaul.

Even under construction, though, the bridge is a magnificent sight. Usually, DuVaul is stuck in his office, struggling with numbers and diagrams. This morning, he's wearing a very white shirt at the very real base of one of the towers.

"This is an amazing structure," he marvels. "People like to paint [this bridge] in particular. I'm not an artist, but you see them set up beside the road over there."

It's hardly a classic landscape setting. But for generations of admirers, the bridges have been an unending source of inspiration.

Lydialyle Gibson can be reached at [email protected].