Timeline: Bridges of the United States

Presented By The Historic Bridge Foundation

The following timeline traces the history of bridges in the United States. The timeline notes the completion of individual bridges that were major engineering achivements in the United States, and also notes the start of trends that marked the evolution of thinking and practice in bridge design and construction.


The oldest surviving stone arch in America is completed over Pennypack Creek near Philadelphia. This marks the beginning of the stone era in America. Stone arch bridges enjoyed regional popularity up until 1915, particularly in the northeastern United States.


Theodore Burr invents the Burr Arch (and later patents it in 1817). The Burr Arch became popular for covered bridges, and this period marks the beginning of the timber/covered bridge era in America.


The Carrollton Viaduct is completed for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. This bridge is one of the oldest railroad bridges in the world that remains in use today.



The Dunlap’s Creek Bridge is completed for the National Road in Brownsville, Pennsylvania. The bridge is the first cast iron arch bridge built in the United States. Cast iron arch bridges never enjoyed the popularity they found in the United Kingdom.


William Howe patents the Howe truss configuration, which was widely used for timber bridges including covered bridges.


The experimental period of iron in bridge building begins with the patenting of an iron bowstring arch bridge by Squire Whipple. Whipple’s design becomes one of the first iron bridges built in notable quantities, which occurred in the 1850s and 1860s.


Thomas and Caleb Pratt patent the Pratt truss. Pratt truss bridges feature diagonal members in tension and vertical members in compression. Pratt's patent also claims the use of adjustable counters to control the tension which became a major feature of pin-connected metal truss bridges in the future decades.



The Wheeling Suspension Bridge is completed and is briefly the longest suspension bridge in the world. From this date forward suspension bridges will be a preferred choice for long-span and major river crossings.


Wendel Bollman patents his Bollman Truss configuration. The Bollman (along with the Fink) were the first iron bridges built for railroad use in substantial quantities.


Albert Fink patents the Fink truss configuration.


Zenas King of the King Iron Bridge Company patents his design for an iron bowstring, which after subsequent improvements into the early 1870s, becomes one of the most popular iron bridge types in the 1870s, along with competitor David Hammond’s design.


David Hammond of the Wrought Iron Bridge Company patents his design for an iron bowstring, which after subsequent improvements into the early 1870s, becomes one of the most popular iron bridge types in the 1870s, along with competitor Zenas King’s design.


The iron bowstring period begins. During this period unique designs are offered and built in substantial quantities by various bridge companies. The 1870s are the final decade of the experimental period in iron bridge building, where unusual patented designs were developed by different companies. This period initiates a slow, steady decline in the use of timber (including covered bridges) that continues to ca. 1900 as bridge companies aggressively market iron/steel as a more durable alternative to timber in bridge construction.


The Eads Bridge is completed by James Buchanan Eads. The large bridge was noted for its early use of steel in some components. Wrought iron will continue to remain popular for the next couple decades.


The Kentucky River “High Bridge” is completed in Kentucky and is the first modern cantilever truss in the United States. For the next century, cantilever trusses and suspension bridges will be the two preferred methods for long-span crossings and major river bridges.


The first two all-steel railroad bridges are completed in this year: The Glasgow Railroad Bridge over Missouri River in Missouri, and the Kinzie Street Bridge in Chicago.


The iron bowstring period ends, and the experimental period in iron bridge building ends. The pin-connected truss era begins. Bowstring bridges are rarely built after this time, and the pin-connected Pratt truss almost immediately replaces it as the dominant iron bridge form. Also, metal truss bridges begin to take the place of wooden covered bridges as the dominant and preferred bridge type for new construction. Unusual, patented designs rapidly decline and bridge companies begin to offer bridges with relatively standard design details on their bridges, although some details such as portal bracing design and connection design continues to show some variation between bridge companies.


The Brooklyn Bridge is completed by the Roebling family. It was the longest suspension bridge in the world when completed.


Ernest Ransome patents a design of metal reinforcing rod for use in concrete construction. His invention would evolve to become the standard rebar used to the present day in many forms of construction. At this time, it has little impact on bridge construction, however.


The Alvord Lake Bridge in San Francisco, the oldest reinforced concrete bridge in the country, is completed. This marks the start of experimental use of concrete in bridge construction. During this period, use is not widespread, and often patented reinforcing such as Melan reinforcing is common.


The pin-connected truss era reaches its height. Experimentation in design has almost completely ended, and truss bridges from this point forward tend to be more difficult to identify based on builder because the movement toward use of standardized designs has advanced so far. During the coming decade, wrought iron sees a steady decline in use as steel becomes more common.


J. A. L. Waddell designs and builds the first modern vertical lift bridge at Halsted Street in Chicago. William and Albert Scherzer patent a modern rolling lift bascule bridge design. Together these bridges mark the start of a very rapid transition to permanent, high quality movable bridges. Before this time, the only alternative to primitive wooden movable bridges was the metal truss swing bridge.


William and Albert Scherzer’s Metropolitan West Side Elevated Railroad Bridge over the South Branch of the Chicago River is completed marking the completion of the first modern rolling lift bascule bridge.


The Cortland Street Bridge in Chicago is completed, the first modern fixed trunnion bascule bridge in America, starting the trunnion era in bascule bridge design. The design was influenced by the famous Tower Bridge in London (built between 1886 and 1894). From this date to the present day, the majority of bascule bridges constructed were either trunnion bascules or rolling lift bascules.


Major changes are taking place at this time. Pin connections in metal trusses are rapidly being replaced by riveted connections, which until this time were uncommon in bridge construction. Steel has replaced wrought iron as the material used in most metal bridges. At this same time, concrete begins to emerge as an alternative to metal bridges, and the experimental period in concrete begins to wind down with an adoption of simple reinforcing rods (rebar) as the preferred reinforcing type. Good Roads movements and frustration with bridge construction quality results in the first state highway departments being formed. These state departments develop standards for bridge design and the role that bridge companies played in bridge design, particularly for small bridges, rapidly declines.


The Long Island Motor Parkway was completed in 1908, and was the first roadway designed by automobile use only. This marked the beginning of the experimental era in limited access highway design, which included overpass bridges to separate intersecting roadways to provide a faster and safer driving experience.


Pin-connections are almost completely replaced by riveted connections. Some bridge companies experiment with bolted connections, but bolts remain in the minority for many decades. Any pin-connected trusses built after this date are an anomaly. Also in this year, the Tunkhannock Viaduct is completed. This was the largest concrete bridge in the world when completed, a bold engineering expression of confidence gained from previous years of experimentation, and it marks the beginning of an era where concrete competes on equal terms with steel as a material for bridge construction. From this point forward to the present day, almost all bridges constructed are either steel, concrete, or a combination of both.


The Sciotoville Railroad Bridge is completed by Gustav Lindenthal, representing the first modern large-scale application of continuous truss design. This was not just an achivement in construction, but also an achievement in design as the engineering calculations for a continuous bridge were more complicated and difficult compared to simple spans. Continuous bridges continue to be built today.


The Metropolis Bridge is completed by Ralph Modjeski. This bridge features the longest simple span truss in the world at 720 feet. The record remained unbroken for many years. Also note that in this same year in Canada, the Quebec Bridge was completed, which had the longest cantilever truss span in the world at 1,800 feet.



Engineer Arthur G. Hayden introduces the concrete rigid-frame bridge in the United States for use as overpasses on his new Bronx River Parkway in New York, an early limited access highway. During this period the experimental era in limited access highways continues, with most highways built within existing urban areas (rather than between large cities).


The Purdy Bridge, with its record-breaking span length for its kind, is completed. The bridge was an early example of a reinforced concrete box girder in the United States. Concrete box girder bridges remain commonly built today around the world.


The Golden Gate Bridge is completed by Charles Alton Ellis and Joseph Strauss and has the longest suspended span in the world when completed, a record it holds for many years.


The Pennsylvania Turnpike opens, and is one of the first modern high speed, long-distance limited access highways running between major urban areas in the United States and was an inspiration for the Interstate Highway System.


The first major pre-stressed concrete bridge in the United States is completed, the Walnut Lane Memorial Bridge in Philadelphia. This marks the beginning of the pre-stressed concrete era, which continues through the present day.


The creation of the Interstate Highway System is authorized by the Federal government. At this time, many states have already begun construction of limited access highways linking major cities. This marks the end of the experimental era in limited access highway design, and establishes a standard for the design of limited access highways. New Interstate Highway construction from this point forward is designed to meet certain standards set forth by the federal government.


The Mackinac Bridge is completed by David B. Steinman. While its main span is not as long as the Golden Gate Bridge, the suspended length between anchorages is the longest in the world when completed. The bridge uses shop rivets for built-up members, but all members are assembled in the field with riveted connections, representing the gradual transition away from riveted connections that begins around this time.


The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge is completed by Othmar Ammann, with a main suspended span exceeding the Golden Gate Bridge’s span.


Use of rivets, both in the shop and the field, comes to an end around this time, fully replaced by welding and bolting.


The Ed Hendler “Intercity” Bridge, the first major long-span cable-stayed bridge in the United States is completed over the Columbia River in Washington state, marking the start of the cable-stayed era. From this date forward cable-stayed bridges rapidly replace cantilever truss bridges and suspension bridges as the preferred type for long-span crossings.


The Gordie Howe International Bridge is under construction between Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario (Canada). When completed in 2024, it will be the longest cable-stayed span in North America.