Sister Ignatius Saves the Wheeling Suspension Bridge from Collapse

Note: This is a fictional tale. Rich Knoblich, WV storyteller and a regular winner of the Liar Contest at the annual Vandalia Gathering hosted by the WV Dept. of Arts and Culture, likes to add some drama, mystery and fun to his fables. It’s been said that some of the best lies are ones that are weaved with a thread of truth, which is exactly how Knoblich designs his short stories. Can you spot the truth in this tale?

The Wheeling Suspension Bridge, completed in 1849 in what was at the time Wheeling, Va., has graced the town’s skyline for nearly 170 years. This elegant engineering marvel, the first bridge to cross the main channel of the Ohio River, stretches westward 1,010 feet to the highest elevation point on Wheeling Island.

However, on May 17, 1854, residents gathered near the sandstone towers to witness a peculiar phenomenon. A fierce wind blew up the river valley causing the bridge to undulate wildly. Local newspaper accounts described a crowd watching in awe as torsional and vertical undulations whipped the bridge up and down reaching heights that equaled the tops of the support towers.

Watch the amazing “Gallopin’ Gertie” November 7, 1940 film clip. 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge,  Youtube:

After several gigantic bounces, the Suspension Bridge was destroyed by the wind’s forces. The sandstone towers, main support cables, and several dangling deck wires were all that remained intact after the deck collapsed into the Ohio River. Within six years the bridge would be rebuilt and strengthened.

Enjoy Wheeling Suspension Bridge article in The West Virginia Encyclopedia:

The durability of the reconstructed bridge is evident today with its elegant open latticework, but 53 years after it was rebuilt, it almost collapsed a second time during the spring 1907 flood. The floodwaters weren’t the direct cause of its near collapse. It was the playful excitement of giddy local school children excitedly witnessing the destruction of a schoolhouse! If it weren’t for one vigilant nun’s stern countenance, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge would have been destroyed.

Flood Wall, Wheeling Island. (Photo by Rich Knoblich)

The 1907 spring flood was one of the highest in the river’s recorded history. Located across from West Virginia’s northern panhandle, sits the river town of Warrenton, Ohio. The high waters washed the town’s large schoolhouse off of its foundation and swept the structure into the main channel of the Ohio River. The massive building remained upright and floated downstream. The rooftop bell tower swayed back and forth clanging its bell calling children to phantom school classes.

As the rocking bell called attention to the still intact floating structure, townsfolk along the river witnessed a bizarre sight. Telegraph lines sprang into life to alert downstream residents of the spectacle that was headed their way. As the grown-ups chattered, the children listened to the intriguing tale of a schoolhouse drifting along like a runaway barge.

In Wheeling, 11 miles downstream, classes had been canceled due to high water. The children in town took advantage of their free time and headed to the Wheeling Suspension Bridge to catch an unobstructed view of the school building.

The structure sailed around a bend in the river, majestically coming into view like a river showboat. Hundreds of school children amassed along the northern walkway of the bridge, thrilled with the sound of the bell tower mimicking the pilot house on a steamboat as it announced its arrival with the clanging bell. It was a proud moment in floating schoolhouse history.

The Warrenton Schoolhouse afloat on the Ohio River in Wheeling. Note the slight upward arch of the main deck as children bounce the bridge. (From the Flood Photograph Collection of the Ohio County Public Library Archives.)

The juveniles reacted the way any group of school children would. They clapped their hands while screaming with glee at the vanquished dragon of learning. They jumped up and down with giddy excitement. It didn’t take long before they realized that the effect of their combined Lilliputian weights caused the bridge to react like a trampoline. And so, in a coordinated effort that would make a marching instructor proud, they synchronized themselves to jump up and thud down to bounce the bridge’s main span. Up and down the bridge sprang as the urchins leapt in unison shouting, “Bouncy bridge! Bouncy bridge!”

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Word of the unfolding event passed through Wheeling where the news reached the desk of Sister Ignatius at Central Catholic School. Upon hearing the report, she put down her red ink pen, scraped her wooden chair back from her oak desk, stood up, then headed pell-mell out the front door. The nun flew down the streets with her habit flapping and her face red as she puffed her 5-foot, 1-inch frame to 10th Street not stopping until she arrived at the eastern sandstone archway of the bridge. She came to a halt near the left-hand side of the open arch.

By this time, the children, many of whom she recognized, had given up on bouncing the bridge. Instead, the entire horde was racing, in unison, back and forth across the width of the bridge. They repeatedly slammed into the north guardrail, turned, ran across the roadway to hit the south rail, then rhythmically repeated the procedure over and over while chanting, “All the way around! All the way around,” never letting up on the running or chanting.

The chant, of course, was a reference to the shout heard on many a summer playground lot as a rider pumped a swing high to the nine o’clock position, then whooshed forward to stall at the three o’clock position, then back again. When a swinger had momentum, the other playground kids would encourage the daredevil to go, “All the way around!” with the hopes that lack of common sense and ignorance of physics would align to make the seat fly a full 360 degrees around the support bar overhead. The rider would momentarily fly upside down and experience zero gravity.

The children of Wheeling were attempting to achieve this effect by rocking the suspended bridge cables like a massive jump rope. The Suspension Bridge slowly swayed north to south then south to north in a mighty arc. The rambunctious imps had a good start by the time Sister Ignatius arrived.

The wimpled nun watched as the heathens (children were often referred to as heathens back in the day) swayed the bridge while shouting, “All the way around!” Without saying a word, she reached into her left sleeve and drew out a wooden 12-inch ruler. Every nun carried one, standard issue. She held the wooden ruler in her right hand and tapped it in the palm of her cupped left hand. She stood silently, her right foot sticking out from under her black habit tapping in time with the ruler. She stared out from her wimple, unamused.

As the children were rushing across the span, little Bobby, who was at the end of the line, sensed a disturbance in the force. He looked over and saw the disapproving nun. He froze in place. Bobby reached out and grabbed his buddy Timothy by the shoulder as he ran by. Timothy’s voice, caught in mid-scream, “All the way…” trailed off to silence when he saw Sister Ignatius. Soon the entire line of shriekers was standing silent, motionless.

From out of the middle of the pack somebody screamed, “RUN FOR IT!” The entire herd broke for the opening on the right side of the sandstone archway.

Sister Ignatius was a wise stalker of wild animals. She knew that a cornered animal will turn and fight, clawing and biting its way to freedom. She held her ground on the left side of the archway’s opening and allowed the stampede to crowd to the right and escape back to the safety of their neighborhoods. If anybody seemed to slow down, she feigned a move toward them and reinvigorated their adrenaline.

Soon the bridge stood empty, and the back-and-forth rocking slowly came to a halt. It hovered silently above the dark flood waters roiling below as the dislodged schoolhouse continued downstream.

The schoolhouse continued bobbing along until the forces of the current tore it apart near Sistersville, W.Va. By the end of its journey, it had traveled over 100 miles.

Unlike the Warrenton Schoolhouse, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge is still in use today. It was saved from a historic second collapse by the calm demeanor of a determined Catholic nun.

Sister Ignatius returned to grading papers at her oak desk at Central Catholic. Outside on the playground, she heard the laughter and shouting of the neighborhood children enjoying the playground equipment. Once she thought she heard from the swing set the haunting refrain of a child calling, “All the way around!”

Rich Knoblich is a storyteller, tour guide, co-founder of storytelling festivals and contributor to numerous publications. He received a Bachelor’s of Education from West Liberty University and a Master’s of Humanities in Literature from California State University.