Lighting Up the Night

Iconic Roebling Suspension Bridge gets 21st Century makeover

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When the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge reopened Nov. 5 after eight months of repainting and revitalization, people in attendance likely marveled at the massive stone towers and spider's web of freshly painted blue cables that support the 1,057-foot span. They might have cringed as they walked across the open grate of the bridge's two-lane roadway or shot photos mid-river from the flanking walkways that allow pedestrians to cross the river.

Few, by contrast, might have noticed the oblong lights, encased in protective grillwork, that trace the curving diagonal cables that give the bridge its profile.

But these lights — the bridge's "necklace," according to its fans — and the flags atop the towers are the most visible signs of a volunteer effort that stretches back 35 years and has been instrumental in keeping the Roebling Bridge fit to be a symbol of the Cincinnati region.

The Covington-Cincinnati Suspension Bridge Committee (CCSBC) formed in 1975 as a nonprofit organization dedicated to the bridge's preservation and enhancement. At the time, the main focus simply was to fly the national and state flags on the bridge’s towers. Changes to the corporate charter in 1984, however, set out to do more for the bridge’s visibility.

The amendments included the “installation, maintenance and continued operation of the bridge beautification lighting,” according to the group’s Web site. And more than 25 years later, the CCSBC still raises the funds necessary to keep the Roebling's necklace glowing through the night.

"It was pretty much a committee of passionate people who wanted to do something," says Nancy Wood, a CCSBC committee member and spokesperson for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet's District 6.

[See more photos of workers installing the new lighting here.]

The Commonwealth of Kentucky, which owns the bridge, maintains road and navigation lighting to comply with safety codes, she adds. But the decorative lighting is entirely volunteer-funded.

"It's about keeping a national historic landmark glorified and beautiful for generations," Wood says.

Urbanites across the county love their cities' bridges, but Wood has some facts to back up her enthusiasm. The Roebling Bridge, named after its designer, was used as a working prototype for technology that was being considered for the soon-to-be-built Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Its combination of vertical and diagonal suspension cables was a first, and it was the longest bridge in the world when it opened in 1866.

Roebling died before the Brooklyn Bridge was complete, but both it and its smaller Queen City forebear show the signature sweeping design for which he's best remembered.

The CCSBC first funded and installed the Roebling Bridge's decorative lighting — the "necklace" and lights illuminating the stone piers — in the mid-1980s. Thanks to a number of long-term investments and steady fundraising, the group has been able to maintain the lights entirely through donations, Wood says.

When Kentucky decided to close the bridge for painting and basic repairs, the CCSBC saw an opportunity to upgrade the lights under their charge. The committee raised a total of $185,000 before and during the construction to pay for new "necklace" lights, and electrical subcontractor Ion Apex was hired to install them.

Unlike the old lights, which used incandescent bulbs that had limited life spans, the new lights incorporate more efficient, durable technology. By using bulbs that operate like fluorescent lights, the new "necklace" has a much lower power draw and needs less maintenance to keep fully lit. Also, the new lights are significantly larger than the ones they replace and were installed using bolt-on clamps that did not require drilling or welding on the bridge's historic structure.

The group has further plans for the Roebling Bridge, namely its massive stone piers. The committee plans to install new pier lighting and hopes to complete the project by the next Roebling Fest in June 2011. That effort depends on the success of the CCSBC's current "Bringing History to Light" campaign.

The group hopes to raise a total of $350,000 to fund the entire lighting renovation, Wood says. Thanks to support from many of the city's larger companies, as well as a strong flow of individual contributions, she's optimistic they'll be able to flip the switch on the new pier lights by spring.

And when they do, she suspects photographers, local convention and visitors' bureaus and plenty of city residents will pay attention to the Roebling — not that they ever stopped.

"If Cincinnati ever gets any national attention, (the news coverage) always has the Roebling Bridge in the background,” Wood says. “It's a national icon, and we're very lucky to have it here."

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