Bridges in Virginia

the John Andrew Twigg Bridge carries Route 3 across the Piankatank River, linking Mathews and Middlesex counties
the John Andrew Twigg Bridge carries Route 3 across the Piankatank River, linking Mathews and Middlesex counties
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), John Andrew Twigg Bridge

Native Americans presumably placed logs and aligned rocks to facilitate crossing streams without getting wet, but they constructed no bridges. English colonists were reluctant to invest in building bridges as well. The technology was not a challenge for crossing small streams, but bridges required substantial investment of labor. In the 1600's, the trees needed for bridge-building materials were readily available but labor was scarce.

The first bridge-like structure built by the English colonists was a 200-foot wharf extending from the shoreline at Jamestown into the shipping channel of the James River. Colonists were required to contribute their labor, unpaid, for maintaining roads and bridges. A 1705 law recognized that unskilled labor conscriped from local residents could not construct all the needed bridges. The law declared that if a bridge which required hiring skilled workers was located within two counties, then they would split the construction costs based on the percentage of residents being taxed (titheables) in each county. The General Assembly also could authorize charging tolls on the most expensive bridges, so travelers would help fund the project.2

covered bridges have been replaced by structures which can handle more, and heavier, vehicles
covered bridges have been replaced by structures which can handle more, and heavier, vehicles
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Little Reed Island Creek

the Orange and Alexandria Railroad bridge over Bull Run was destroyed early in the Civil War
the Orange and Alexandria Railroad bridge over Bull Run was destroyed early in the Civil War
Source: Library of Congress, View on Bull Run, crossing of Orange and Alexandria railroad

the Union side rebuilt the Orange and Alexandria Railroad bridge over Bull Run
the Union side rebuilt the Orange and Alexandria Railroad bridge over Bull Run
the Union side rebuilt the Orange and Alexandria Railroad bridge over Bull Run
the Union side rebuilt the Orange and Alexandria Railroad bridge over Bull Run
Source: Library of Congress, Railroad bridge across Bull Run. O. & A. R.R., R. R. (i.e. Railroad) bridge across Bull Run. O. & A. R.R., and U.S. Military Railroad Bridge, Bull Run, Va. Orange and Alexandria R.R.

Today, wide range of highway, rail, and pedestrian bridges provide connections across valleys and rivers. Few bridges built in the 1800's have survived; most have been replaced because their became structurally unsafe or were too light/narrow to handle modern traffic. Even the "historic" covered bridges have been modified by restoration and repairs. The roof on Humpback Bridge replaced by the Virginia Department of Transportation in 2013 dated back only to the 1970's, and the entire Meems Bottom Covered Bridge was rebuilt after being torched by vandals in 1976.1

the Humpback Bridge is the only Virginia bridge designated as a National Historic Landmark
the Humpback Bridge is the only Virginia bridge designated as a National Historic Landmark
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Humpback Bridge

A vast number of railroad bridges have been required because trains do not go up or down slopes easily. Tracks were laid out to minimize grades, with bridges built to cross low spots and occasionally tunnels to avoid high spots so locomotives could pull more cars with heavier loads.

Horses and wagons had the same problem until World War II, and historic roads closely followed topographic features to minimize the number of horses needed to haul a load. Ferries carried people and vehicles across rivers. Operating costs were higher, since a ferry operator needed to be paid, but ferries required far less initial investment than bridges. Since the advent of modern vehicles after 1910, nearly all ferries have been replaced with bridges to minimize delays.

the only bridge to cross the York River, the George P. Coleman Memorial Bridge, swings open to allow ships to pass between Yorktown and Gloucester Point
the only bridge to cross the York River, the George P. Coleman Memorial Bridge, swings open to allow ships to pass between Yorktown and Gloucester Point
Source: Wikipedia, George P. Coleman Memorial Bridge

In Hampton Roads, tunnels have been constructed as a part of the major crossings rather than bridges, to minimize the risk of an enemy destroying a structure and creating a dam of debris that blocked US Navy ships from reaching key facilities.

a tanker hit the Benjamin Harrison Memorial Bridge in 1977, demonstrating the risk of a damaged bridge blocking the shipping channel
a tanker hit the Benjamin Harrison Memorial Bridge in 1977, demonstrating the risk of a damaged bridge blocking the shipping channel
Source: Virginia DEpartment of Transportation, Benjamin Harrison Memorial Bridge

Bridge components were built near each shoreline, since those structures are far less expensive, but tunnels go underneath the major shipping channels.

construction of the new High Rise Bridge over the Elizabeth River (May 11, 2018)
High Rise Bridge over the Elizabeth River (May 11, 2018)
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, High Rise Bridge

construction of the new High Rise Bridge over the Elizabeth River (January 31, 2019)
construction of the new High Rise Bridge over the Elizabeth River (January 31, 2019)
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, High Rise Bridge

Modern engineers consider environmental as well as construction costs before decisionmakers choose between constructing an embankment/causeway, tunnel, or bridge. However, politics remains a key a factor in allocating funding and prioritizing construction or replacement of bridges.

The tallest highway bridge in Virginia was constructed near Breaks Interstate Park on the Virginia-Kentucky border. Prior to its completion, the "Smart Road" bridge built in 2001 over Wilson Creek near at Blacksburg was the highest highway bridge in Virginia.3

the Smart Road bridge over Wilson Creek in Montgomery County is now the second-highest highway bridge in Virginia
the Smart Road bridge over Wilson Creek in Montgomery County is now the second-highest highway bridge in Virginia
Source: Ben Townsend, Ellett Valley Smart Road bridge

The US 460 bridge across Grassy Creek in Buchanan County is part of the Corridor Q 460 Connector in the Appalachian Development Highway System (ADHS). That bridge was completed in 2015, but Kentucky did not plan to build its portion of the connector road for another five years. The tallest bridge in Virginia was a visual monument of the political desire to improve transportation in the Appalachian region, but no traffic crossed the bridge during that period.4

the highest bridge in Virginia was completed before Kentucky built its part of the Corridor Q 460 Connector
the highest bridge in Virginia was completed before Kentucky built its part of the Corridor Q 460 Connector
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

The longest longest pedestrian swinging bridge in North America, stretching 725 feet across the Russell Fork gorge, will be constructed by 2021 over the Virginia-Kentucky border at Breaks Interstate Park. The bridge will link the park to the Pine Mountain Trail, which extends 120 miles south to Cumberland Gap. The Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority funded over half of the costs of the swinging bridge in order to enhance business activity stimulated by tourism.5

Efforts to preserve old bridges extend beyond just the covered bridges in Virginia. The Virginia Department of Transportation closed the Waterloo Bridge over the Rappahannock River in January, 2014 because of safety concerns. The wrought iron bridge, with wooden deck, was first erected in 1878. Vehicles on Route 613 could no longer go between Culpeper and Fauquier counties via the single-lane bridge.

The Piedmont Environmental Council led the charge to get the Virginia Department of Transportation to repair, rather than replace, the oldest remaining Pratt through truss bridge in the state. A local resident agreed to donate $1 million.

Local, persistent efforts to preserve the bridge finally paid off. In 2020 the state awarded a $3.7 million contract to remove, repair, and reinstall the components so the Waterloo Bridge could once again carry cars and light trucks across the river.6

Waterloo Bridge, crossing the Rappahannock River, dates back to 1878
Waterloo Bridge, crossing the Rappahannock River, dates back to 1878
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Waterloo Bridge

Waterloo Bridge has a wooden deck
Waterloo Bridge has a wooden deck
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Waterloo Bridge

Covered Bridges in Virginia

Ferries in Virginia

Hampton Roads Bridges and Tunnels

Highways in Virginia

Modern Deals to Rebuild Bridges Crossing the Potomac River

Railroads in Virginia

Transportation Tunnels in Virginia

Woodrow Wilson Bridge

Links

Ninth Street Bridge, crossing the James River in Richmond
Ninth Street Bridge, crossing the James River in Richmond
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Richmond City Skyline

References

1. "Humpback Bridge restoration," Virginia Department of Transportation, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbkIiHCeSw4; "Historic Meems Bottom Covered Bridge," Virginia Tourism Corporation, https://www.virginia.org/listings/outdoorsandsports/historicmeemsbottomcoveredbridge/(last checked December 1, 2019)
2. "A History Of Roads In Virginia 'The Most Convenient Wayes'," Virginia Department of Transportation, 2006, pp.4-6, http://www.virginiadot.org/about/resources/historyofrds.pdf (last checked December 2, 2019)
3. "Smart Road Bridge over Wilson Creek," PCL Construction, https://www.pcl.com/Projects-that-Inspire/Pages/Smart-Road-Bridge-over-Wilson-Creek.aspx (last checked December 1, 2019)
4. "Tallest bridge in Virginia may finally open to traffic next year," WYMT, May 24, 2019, https://www.wymt.com/content/news/Tallest-bridge-in-Virginia-may-finally-open-to-traffic-next-year-510372791.html (last checked December 1, 2019)
5. "Breaks receives funding for bridge over Russell Fork to connect Virginia, Kentucky border; expected to be the longest pedestrian swinging bridge in North America," Bristol Herald Courier, December 18, 2019, https://www.heraldcourier.com/news/local/breaks-receives-funding-for-bridge-over-russell-fork-to-connect/article_83ca7d2a-21b6-11ea-8131-83d34a536523.html; "Pine Mountain Trail," US Forest Servce, https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/gwj/recreation/hiking/recarea/?recid=78548&actid=50 (last checked December 20, 2019)
6. "Coming Soon: Waterloo Bridge, Culpeper Co./Fauquier Co.," Virginia Department of Transportation, http://www.virginiadot.org/projects/culpeper/waterloo.asp; "Waterloo Bridge contract for $3.6 million awarded," FauquierNOW, January 15, 2020, https://www.fauquiernow.com/fauquier_news/article/fauquier-waterloo-bridge-contract-for-3.6-million-awarded-2020; "Save Waterloo Bridge!" Piedmont Environmental Council, https://www.pecva.org/our-mission/transportation/995-save-the-waterloo-bridge (last checked January 16, 2020)


From Feet to Space: Transportation in Virginia
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