Though it was constructed in 1890-91, before vehicle traffic was an issue at all, the Aetnaville Bridge spent most of its life as an active part of US Route 252, with pedestrians only a small part of what it carried across the river. It was built from industrial-grade steel at a cost of $150,000, and it has held up for well over a century, despite being closed to traffic sometime around 1990. (A woman named Helen Hanson sued the Highway Department in 1988 after she fell on the crumbled steps at the West Virginia end, and it was still carrying vehicles then; read her brief here.)
These days it's blocked off by concrete highway barriers and closed to all but foot traffic, though the metal traffic signs still warn phantom truckers about the height restrictions related to the criscrossing metal framework overhead, and there are still gutted boxes which used to control the traffic lights.
Aetnaville was never much of a town, and by the time the bridge started carrying cars and trucks it had been absorbed by Bridgeport on the south and Martins Ferry on the north. If you visit it today you're actually in Martin's Ferry--though it is still on many maps--and you reach it by taking a short ramp up from Route 7 just as you're entering (or leaving) town. Locals actually say "Etnyville," as I learned first from my dad, who was born in Martins Ferry and grew up in Bridgeport, and then from the great people who made up the staff when I ran the Eastern Ohio regional office for a 527 political organization in 2004.
Without cars, and with only the occasional jogger to contend with, the bridge is a peaceful place these days. In the fall it fills up with leaves from the riverside trees which tower overhead. The shots you see here were taken in June 2004, when my friends from the election office showed me the full length of the abandoned structure I'd been driving beneath each day on my way to work.
Two months later my girlfriend and I showed her younger brother Jackson, who was eight, the Aetnaville Bridge, which provides some very pretty views of the river and the two states it separates from the pedestrian walkways. Their mother, however, opted to stay on dry land; it's true that walking in the popular middle channel, where cars used to pass, can make you dizzy if you look down. It's not the highest bridge in the world, but the water looks far enough away through the wide gaps in the grating to be a little disorienting. You can even watch the river wash past the stone pillars that hold it up along the way, and it's a good vantage point to stake out when the Valley experiences one of its all-too-frequent floods.
You can get underneath, but on the Ohio side it's a weedy tangle of underbrush, for the most part. On the West Virginia side, however, you'll see a couple of sandy beaches, plus decent fishing spots directly below the bridge.
Forgotten Ohio adheres to a strict Ohio-only policy when it comes to actual content and sites profiled. I have been known to visit abandoned and haunted locations in other states, including two trips to what's either an abandoned girls' reformatory or mental hospital (commonly known as the Weston State Hospital) just across the WV border from Gallia County; haunted roads in Kentucky; abandoned farmhouses in Indiana; derelict factories and warehouses in Michigan; and many sites associated with West Virginia's infamous Mothman. I'll include "Ghostly Encounters" from anywhere. But the shots of the far side of the Aetnaville Bridge on this page are some of the only non-Ohio pictures you'll ever see in a Forgotten Ohio profile page. I just had to draw a geographical limit somewhere or I'd never feel like I could wrap my mind around the task.
At any rate, the image above is the West Virginia end of the Aetnaville Bridge, which comes out not on the mainland of the state, but in fact on Wheeling Island, which you can see in the Mapquest map.
Technically the bridge spans what they call the "back river," the smaller back channel created by the division of the Ohio River around the island. Even at less than half the width of the full river it's broad enough and pretty enough, especially in high summer, when I snapped the photos shown here.
In Wheeling, Route 252, which crosses the Aetnaville Bridge, is called Georgia Street. It crosses what is nearly the northern tip of the island but is, of course, only a driveable street where the bridge is not concerned. The southern tip is more than occupied by the Wheeling Island Racetrack and Gaming Center, a sort of abbreviated casino with slot machines and plenty of dog racing and betting, but no table games like blackjack or roulette. It's the sort of half-measure voted into law to draw gambling addicts from the more puritan states nearby.
The island, photographed above from the east in an image borrowed from the Wikipedia page, consists mostly of lower-middle-class dwellings, rowhouses and double apartments, but is dominated by the aforementioned dogtrack and casino and its huge parking lots.
With the "back river" so much smaller than the main part, Wheeling Island would appear logically to be part of Ohio, not West Virginia--and, geologically speaking, that's mostly the case. But politically, when the outer boundaries were being drawn of what was at that time the largest and most influential state in the Union, Virginia had more clout than what was then the wilderness territory on the far side of the mighty Ohio River. In 1863, the midst of the Civil War, West Virginia was granted its independence in order to remain among the uncontested Union states, and since then it has remained mostly wilderness--too mountainous for much cultivation, and without a major city to aid its growth. Today Ohio, with 11.4 million citizens to West Virginia's 1.8, would doubtless win out, but when they drew the border in 1788, Virginia got nearly all the islands along the Ohio River--including the small, uninhabited wilderness islands, like Fish Creek Island, which together make up a national wildlife refuge.
Finally, it's interesting to note the minor fame achieved by the otherwise little-known or -noted Aetnaville Bridge when a photograph of it appeared on the cover of Above the River: The Collected Poems of James Wright. Wright, who was born in Martins Ferry on December 13, 1927, went on to teach at Kenyon College and edit the influential Kenyon Review. Many of his works are about his hometown and the Ohio Valley region in general--poems like "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio," which mentions Shreve High School. His 1972 Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize. Eight years later he died from cancer of the tongue; in 1992 his estate published a new, comprehensive collection called Above the River.
The picture chosen for the cover of the posthumous Above the River: The Complete Poems was taken in Wright's hometown, on the bank of the Ohio River just below the good old Aetnaville Bridge. It's a black-and-white photo of the underside, taken probably in the fall or winter. When I first bought the book I didn't realize it was the Aetnaville Bridge I was looking at on the cover; the thought only occurred to me to check the publication page and see for sure after I'd read and re-read several of his Ohio Valley poems (check out "In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia, Has Been Condemned" or "At the Executed Murderer's Grave" for top-notch examples). I highly recommend his work, and suggest that you find a copy of Above the River--and not just because it's fronted by a photograph of one of the many forgotten relics along the sad Ohio River, formerly a major artery of commerce. Check back soon for profiles of additional abandoned bridges, in Bellaire and Bridgeport, among others.
Autumn Begins in Martin's Ferry, Ohio
In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.
List of Crossings of the Ohio River
Wikipedia: Wheeling Island
Wheeling Island Racetrack and Gaming Center
Wikipedia: James Wright
James Wright's Complete Poems
Amazon.com: Above the River by James Wright
Complaint in Helen Hanson and Howard Hanson vs. Department of Highways