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Big Four Bridge (Louisville)

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Title: Big Four Bridge (Louisville)  
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Subject: Kentucky, Jeffersonville, Indiana, Downtown Louisville, Louisville Waterfront Park, List of rail trails, List of crossings of the Ohio River, Butchertown, Louisville, Transportation in Kentucky
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Big Four Bridge (Louisville)

Big Four Bridge
John F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge as firefighters work to contain a fire on the abandoned structure, May 7, 2008
Crosses Ohio River
Locale Louisville, Kentucky, and Jeffersonville, Indiana, United States
Total length 2,525 ft (770 m)
Longest span 547 ft (167 m)
Vertical clearance 53 ft (16 m)
Opened 1895
Closed End of railroad use 1969

38°15′56″N 85°44′20″W / 38.26556°N 85.73889°W / 38.26556; -85.73889Coordinates: 38°15′56″N 85°44′20″W / 38.26556°N 85.73889°W / 38.26556; -85.73889

The Big Four Bridge is a six-span former railroad truss bridge that crosses the Ohio River, connecting Louisville, Kentucky, and Jeffersonville, Indiana, United States. It was completed in 1895, and updated in 1929. It has its largest span at 547 feet (167 m), for 2,525 feet (770 m) in total. It gets its name from the defunct Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway, which was nicknamed the "Big Four Railroad". It is now a converted pedestrian walkway from Louisville into Indiana.

Access to the Big Four Bridge is limited to pedestrian and bicycle use. A pedestrian ramp on the Kentucky side was opened on February 7, 2013. Access ways onto the bridge for rail traffic were first removed in 1969, earning the Big Four Bridge the nickname "Bridge That Goes Nowhere". The George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge downstream, which carries U.S. 31 across the river, was previously the only bridge allowing bicyclists and pedestrians travel between Louisville and its Indiana suburbs of New Albany, Clarksville, and Jeffersonville.

In February 2011, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels announced that the two states, along with the City of Jeffersonville, would allocate $22 million in funding to complete the Big Four Bridge project, creating a pedestrian and bicycle path to link Louisville and Jeffersonville. Indiana would spend up to $8 million and the City of Jeffersonville would provide $2 million in matching dollars to pay for construction of a ramp to the Big Four Bridge. Kentucky pledged $12 million to replace the deck on the bridge and connect it to the spiral ramp that was completed in Waterfront Park.

On February 7, 2013, the Louisville ramp was opened for pedestrian and bicycle traffic. [1] After originally planning to be open in August 2013, the Jeffersonville ramp is now scheduled to be opened in November 2013. [2]


The Big Four Bridge is a six-span bridge, totaling 2,525 ft (770 m) long,[3] with a clearance of 53 ft (16 m). The northernmost span is a riveted, eight-panel Parker through truss. The next three spans are 547 ft (167 m) long, and are riveted, sixteen-panel Pennsylvania through trusses. The two southern spans are riveted, 10-panel Parker through trusses.[4] It carried a single track of railway.


The Big Four Bridge was first conceived in Jeffersonville in 1885 by various city interests. The Louisville and Jeffersonville Bridge Company was formed in 1887 to construct the Big Four Bridge, after a charter by the state of Indiana; Kentucky also chartered the company in 1888. The riverboat industry, a big economic factor in Jeffersonville, had requested that the bridge be built further upstream from the Falls of the Ohio, but the United States Army Corps of Engineers approved the building site, even after the vocal protestations.[5]


Construction began on October 10, 1888. The Big Four Bridge would be the only Louisville bridge with serious accidents during its building; thirty-seven individuals died during its construction. The first twelve died while working on a pier foundation when a caisson that was supposed to hold back the river water flooded, drowning the workers. Another four men died a few months after that when a wooden beam broke while working on a different pier caisson.[5]

The Big Four Bridge had one of the biggest bridge disasters in the United States, occurring on December 15, 1893 when a construction crane was dislodged by a severe wind, causing the falsework support of a truss to be damaged and the truss—with forty-one workers on it—to fall into the Ohio River. Twenty of the workers survived, but twenty-one died. The accident almost cost more lives, as a ferry crossing the Ohio River just barely missed being hit by the truss. Hours later, a span next to the damaged span also fell into the river, but was abandoned at the time, causing no injuries. As a result, falsework was longitudely reinforced to prevent further occurrences, and also to prevent strong winds from causing similar damage by using special bracing on the bottom frame of the truss. Also, a new rule was enforced: "never trust a bolted joint any longer than is necessary to put a riveted one in place".[5]

The Big Four Bridge was finally completed in September 1895. Because of the location of the bridge and the growth of the Kennedy Interchange, the interchange had to avoid the columns that were on the approach to the bridge, causing the interchange to have several two-lane ramps rather than a single stretch of highway, and helped earn the nickname Spaghetti Junction.[6] Due to the various accidents, the Louisville and Jeffersonville Bridge Company was financially strapped after building the bridge, and later in 1895 sold it to the Indianapolis-based Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway, also known as the Big Four Railroad. This gave the railway its first entry into the Louisville market, although the railroad would have likely used the bridge even if they had not bought it, as they desired access to Louisville.[5]

Rail operation

One effect of the opening of the Big Four Bridge was increased transportation of freight by rail, significantly decreasing the number of packet boats that at one time crossed the Ohio River by the dozens.[7]

On February 19, 1904, a Baltimore and Ohio train accidentally crossed the Big Four Bridge, due to engineer Dick Foreman falling asleep and going the wrong way at Otisco, Indiana. The fireman kept shoveling coal and did not pay attention. It was the conductor that finally noticed the error midway across the Big Four Bridge. The wayward train had to back up all the way back to Otisco.[8]

On September 12, 1905, the first interurban crossed the Big Four Bridge. In January 1918, two interurbans collided on the Big Four Bridge, killing three and injuring twenty aboard.[9][10][11]

Due to the increasing weight of the rail traffic, contracts were finalized in June 1928 to build a bigger Big Four Bridge, which opened on June 25, 1929. The new Big Four Bridge was built on the piers of the old bridge, a "novel building process", as it sped up the time necessary to build the new bridge; the old one served to reinforce the new one as it was being built. The old piers would still be used, but the falsework was entirely removed. During construction, the Big Four Bridge's usual rail traffic was routed over the Kentucky & Indiana Terminal Bridge. The interurbans that used the Big Four Bridge would instead disembark at Sellersburg, Indiana and have the passengers board buses into Louisville for the duration of the Big Four's reconstruction.[5]


In 1988 Oscar Arias, President of Costa Rica, contacted Louisville mayor Jerry Abramson to inquire about buying the bridge to dismantle it and reassemble in Costa Rica, as he believed it would be cheaper to import the bridge than build a new one. At the time the city did not actually own the bridge, and the plan never went through.[12]

Post-railway use

The Big Four Bridge fell into disuse after the Big Four Railroad's parent company, the New York Central Railroad, was merged into the Penn Central in 1968. The Big Four Bridge's former traffic was then routed over Louisville's Fourteenth Street Bridge. By 1969 both approach spans had been removed and sold for scrap. As a result, the Big Four Bridge became the first Louisville bridge to fall out of use, and gained the nickname "Bridge That Goes Nowhere".[5][10]

During the 1970s and 1980s, local radio station WLRS-102 FM lit up the Big Four Bridge as part of their "Bridge the Gap" Christmas promotion, which was used as a fund raiser for needy local families. Some of the lights spelled out "LRS 102".

After unsuccessful litigation to stop the project, the Big Four Bridge was converted into a pedestrian and bicycle bridge as part of Louisville Waterfront Park and the ongoing revitalization of the Louisville riverfront. This conversion had been proposed and planned since the 1990s. The Indiana Department of Transportation pledged $1 million for the project to build a ramp to the Big Four Bridge on the Indiana side, on Riverside Drive, and Jeffersonville pledged $200,000; early estimates were that the Indiana ramp would cost $2.8 million, but was likely to increase. The Kentucky ramp was expected to cost $4 million; the ramp foundation is already done. Fixing the Big Four Bridge was expected to cost $3 million and take 18 months. The only other facility still standing that was owned by the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway is the Spring Street Freight House. However, the mayor of Jeffersonville, Tom Galligan, called for a redesign of the entrance ramp to the bridge on the Indiana side, stressing that the proposed ramp would be unattractive and that the building of the column on a flood plain would probably not be possible. Galligan pointed out that neither the United States Coast Guard nor the Army Corps of Engineers had approved of the planned rampway. Galligan said he would rather have a ramp that reached over the floodwall and ended on Mulberry Street, causing a less severe incline on and off the bridge. Previous plans to access the Big Four Bridge included building an elevator.[13][14][15]

The plans for bicycling included a suspension ramp that would allow bicyclists to leave the Big Four Bridge without dismounting their bikes. Due to the length of time any new downtown bridge would take to be built, and needing an alternative for cyclists and pedestrians to get across the Ohio River when the George Rogers Clark Bridge is closed, which happens yearly during Thunder Over Louisville, bicyclists preferred the idea of converting the Big Four rather than relying on a new downtown bridge or the Clark Bridge.[16] With the Kentucky side access ramp completed, construction is now underway for a ramp on the Indiana side.

During Thunder Over Louisville, the Big Four Bridge sets the limit on how close private boats can get to the fireworks, which are centered two bridges away on the George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge.


Since its closing, the bridge has seen occasional fires; two in the 1970s, one in 1987 and one in 2008. In 1987 Christmas lights posted on the bridge to promote a toy drive started the fire; both the Jeffersonville and Louisville Fire Departments fought six to eight hours to put out the blaze.[17][18]

On May 7, 2008 the bridge caught fire a quarter-mile (400 m) north of the Louisville end, shortly after noon, 70 to 80 ft (21 to 24 m) above the Ohio River;[18] suspected to have started from an electrical problem. This fire had more troubles due to the age and condition of the bridge; the wood trusses on the bridge were unsafe for firefighters to scale, due to the fire on the bridge ten years before. Louisville Fire & Rescue chief Greg Frederick decided that firefighters were not to be sent onto the bridge; a boat from the Harrods Creek Fire Department was used to put out the fire, as Louisville's fire boat did not have a hose which could reach the blaze upon the bridge.

It took two and a half hours to control the fire. Navigation lights used for the heavy barge traffic were being changed at the time of the report, according to Mike Kimmel of Louisville Waterfront Development. The Coast Guard shut down river traffic for about a mile around the bridge because debris was falling off the aging bridge. An official determination on the cause of the fire was expected in June 2008.[19][20][21][dated info]

By mid-July 2009, work had begun to convert the bridge to a pedestrian walkway.[22] In February 2013 pedestrians were allowed to access the completed bridge from the ramp on the Kentucky side; construction still continues on the Indiana ramp. A full reopening is now expected in summer 2013.[23]

See also



External links

  • Big Four Railroad Bridge at Bridges & Tunnels
  • Historic American Engineering Record (HAER)
  • Kentucky, Indiana pledge $22M to fund completion of Big Four Bridge -- Feb 2011
  • New Funds Will Complete Big Four Bridge Project -- Feb 2011
  • Video of May 7, 2008, bridge fire
  • Video of May 7, 2008, bridge fire
  • WHAS11NEWS Coverage of the fire
  • WHAS11NEWS Slide Show of the fire
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