By Jane Bailey
For the Sidney Daily News
SIDNEY — An impressive feat of early 20th century engineering dominates the skyline when taking the old Dixie Highway into Sidney, Ohio, from the south end of town. Glimpses of this structural marvel can be seen from the surrounding area, whether through trees at the nearby park or between buildings in the distance.
Constructed in the early 1920’s, the Big Four Railroad Bridge has served its purpose of allowing trains safe passage through Sidney for nearly 100 years. Work began on the bridge in 1922 after a decision was made to reroute the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis line through the south end of the city to avoid any more tragic fatalities downtown. Ultimately, the aftermath of the 1913 flood affecting the previous railroad bridge over the Great Miami River combined with multiple accidents involving trains and pedestrians as well as automobiles were the catalysts laying the groundwork for a more practical railway route.
The previous line through Sidney also contained eleven curves and nine graded crossings, making navigation through the city strenuous for the train’s engineer. When it was decided a new bridge was needed to span the river south of town, the Walsh Construction Company out of Davenport, Iowa, was given the contract for the project, which turned out to be no small accomplishment.
Hundreds of men labored for months at a time on the site of the new bridge spanning the Great Miami River and the road to Piqua. Embankments were created from tons of earth on the west side of the road and east side of the river, while wooden trestles and scaffolds extended from either side meeting in the middle.
Like most major feats of construction at that time, the Big Four Bridge had its share of tragedies. Two workers, Henry Snyder and Patrick Fitzgerald, were involved in an accident in June 1923, after one of the trestles along the eastern embankment collapsed, sending workers and gondolas of dirt crashing to the ground 100 feet below them. One man was killed instantly while the other was seriously injured. Almost a year later, an eerily similar accident involving 125 feet of trestle collapsing sent 10 heavily loaded dump cars and two more workers, Verdit Williams and George Bennett, to their untimely deaths in May 1924. A fourth man had been killed just months earlier when Thomas Schmidt slipped and fell to his death while pouring concrete for the massive abutments.
Once completed, the massive reinforced concrete bridge was considered to be an engineering marvel for its time. The bridge contained over 28,000 cubic yards of concrete and 900,000 pounds of steel while the embankments contained a million cubic yards of earth. It surveys the area from a height of over 100 feet and contains five archways that span a length of 785 feet. Two sets of tracks were laid across its top, which spans a width of just 29 feet, allowing two trains to traverse its length if necessary.
Saturday, Oct. 18, 1924, heralded the first freight train to cross the new bridge over the Great Miami River on the Big Four Railway. Passenger trains continued to use the old track until the train depot on Chestnut Avenue was completed later that year. What a sight it would have been to travel to Sidney as a passenger from a westbound train and to view the city from the tracks.
For the last 100 years, the Big Four Bridge has stood as the gateway to the Miami Valley and has become an iconic symbol for Sidney. While the last passenger train crossed its span in 1966, CSX currently still uses the railroad bridge to transport freight nationwide. Although it shows wear and tear as all old concrete structures do, it still can withstand the daily rumble of a freight train across its span proving that it is still a valuable landmark worth preserving.
Celebration set for Oct. 5
SIDNEY — Fireworks will explode over The Big Four Bridge during the 100th anniversary celebration of the construction of the Sidney landmark.
The celebration will be held at Columbia Park, north of the Big Four Bridge, beginning at 4 p.m. with box dinners from The Bridge Restaurant will be served. Presale tickets for the dinner are available at the Shelby County Historical Society’s Ross Center. Tickets are $10 each. The meals will be served from 4-8 p.m.
The Traveling museum will also open at 4 p.m. Free commemorative coins will be available, while supplies last.
From 5-8 p.m. free cake and ice creak will be served, while supplies last. The Gallery 2:TEN booth will also be open. The booth will have original artwork, prints and notecards from local artists for sale.
From 5:30-6:30 p.m., Scott Trostel will hold a book signing in the Traveling Museum. He will be signing his book “The Great Miami River Valley Railroad Realignment Projects on the C. H. & D. and Big Four Railroads in Shelby and Logan Counties” along with several other titles.
A history program will begin at 6:30 p.m. featuring the Lehman Limelighters, Senior Center Singers and Historian Rich Wallace.
The celebration will conclude with a fireworks display at 8 p.m.
Extra parking will be available at Graceland Cemetery. People should use the Brooklyn Avenue and Gearhart Road to enter the cemetery.
Sponsors of the celebration are Experience Shelby County History, The Bridge Restaurant, the city of Sidney, Western Ohio Cut Stone, Ferguson Construction and CSX Railroad.
The writer is the building coordinator of the Wallace Family Learning and Innovation Center.