King Bridges in New York State

by Allan King Sloan


Allan King Sloan

The King Bridge Company of Cleveland, Ohio was founded by Zenas King in 1858 and produced bridges of iron and steel all over the county for the next 64 years. After Zenas died in 1892, his sons James and Harry took over the Company’s direction until it ended operations in 1922. Zenas had the foresight to see that there was a nationwide need for iron bridges and that a well organized system of production and delivery was required to supply it. Before the fax and telephone, Zenas had set up a network of sales agents all over the country, armed with impressive catalogues, who would secure orders for bridges, mainly from town and county authorities. From the factory in Cleveland, component parts of the bridge structure were shipped by railroad to the building site where a local crew supervised by King’s agent would undertake the assembly. In this way, by the mid 1880s the Company had produced over 5,000 bridges of all sizes and shapes, well over 200 in New York State alone, which was one of its largest markets. The Company became one of the largest and most active of the iron bridge builders during this period and its exploits in creating the nation’s transportation infrastructure are well known to bridge historians. One enthusiastic biography had the following to say about Zenas King; “What Bell is to the telephone, Morse to the telegraph, Fulton to the steamboat, and Goodyear to the vulcanized rubber industry, Zenas King is to the science of building iron bridges.”

There were three distinct periods of bridge building in which the King Bridge Company participated.

The Bowstring Era

The first was during the 1860s and early 1870s when the bowstring truss, first fashioned by Squire Whipple and later improved upon by other bridge builders like Thomas Mosely and Zenas King, was very popular. It was a very efficient design, relatively easy to manufacture and ship to a site and assemble quickly, not expensive, and well suited to an era when crossing rivers and streams to connect two sides of a mill town or provide easy access to new farm land was in great demand.

The American Standard Era

The second was the era in the mid 1870s through the 1880s and 1890s when a larger and stronger truss was needed to handle heavier loads on both the highways and railroads. The so called American Standard bridge became the structure of choice, modeled after the familiar trapezoidal designs patented by Warren, Pratt and others. These could be also manufactured to set designs and shipped to building sites for local assembly.

The Large Bridge Era

The third was the period beginning in the late 1880’s and lasting until the 1920’s, (before reinforced concrete became the material of choice for highway bridges), when larger, longer and more sophisticated spans were needed to cross large rivers and valleys. Engineers had developed the way to build cantilevered and suspension bridges, long viaducts, and movable lift and swing bridges. These were all required for the fast expanding railroad and highway networks. Zenas King had patented one of the first swing bridges which became a model for many large bridges needed to allow water navigation under major land travel corridors. In this last period, the Company often collaborated with other engineering and construction firms in joint ventures, with King focusing on the iron and steel fabrication and construction.

While most of the bridges built between the Civil War and World War I have long since been replaced there remain a few examples of King bridges from each of these eras in various parts of New York State. Some of these bridges are still in use either for their original purpose to carry vehicular traffic or preserved and limited to foot traffic while others are abandoned and hidden away to rust.

Late in 1998, I began an effort to track down any remaining King bridges, to visit them, and to determine their current status. Many of these have been recorded from time to time by the State Department of Transportation and the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and some (now gone) were recorded on the inventory of the Historic American Engineering Record in Washington. With a new emphasis on preservation of historic structures now contained in The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) passed by the U.S. Congress in 1998, there may be an opportunity to reexamine these old bridges to determine if and how they might be saved, protected, and enhanced within the spirit of this new legislation. To date, most assessments of the historic importance of an old bridge had to do with its structural characteristics, site location, and aesthetic qualities. To these should be added the importance of the designers and builders of these structures — just as the signature on an old painting or the name of the architect of an old building adds to its historic importance.

I have made a list of the extant King bridges with a assessment of their situation and possibilities with the hope that it can be of use to those State and local officials and citizens interested in preserving these pieces of important U.S. transportation history. Old bridges are among those historic “collectibles” which require a strong and dedicated local champion to insure their preservation and maintenance. The intent of this report is to help arm these potential champions with additional information needed to justify their preservation.

In this quest, I have been aided by a number of fellow bridge enthusiasts, including Bill Chamberlin of Schnectady, Jim Stewart of Churchville, and Raymond Smith of the Historic Preservation Field Office of the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, plus a number of State and County engineers who have taken an interest in preservation of old bridges. There are also a number of historians in the towns in which old King bridges have been found who have helped in documenting these fine structures.

[Editors note: The Wallkill Valley RR bridge was originally built in 1871-72 by the Watson Manufacturing Co., from Paterson, New Jersey. The original Watson bridge was constructed using wrought-iron. The Watson bridge, after only three years service, was replaced by the steel King bridge. The King bridge was built during the winter of 1895-96 without any major interruption of rail service. The King bridge used steel supplied by the Carnegie Steel Company. During its 104 years the bridge was strengthened and reinforced several times by the railroad company to be able to carry the ever heavier loads of modern railroading. Interested in learning more about the King Bridge Company? Alan King Sloan has a web site (www.kingbridgeco.com) where you can learn about Zenas King, the founder of the bridge company, as well as a more detailed history of the Company.]

[Web note: This article first appeared in the CHHS newletter.  The photo was taken at Mr. Sloan's presentation to the Society.]



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