Until 1891, travel between Charleston’s south side and the downtown area was accomplished by a ferry ride across the Kanawha River. A map from 1850 has two ferry docks located in downtown Charleston. One was Davidson’s Ferry, located near the mouth of the Elk River, and the other, Goshorn’s Ferry, crossed the Kanawha River at Court Street. The ferries were privately owned but licensed through the government as an essential public service.
The first South Side Bridge, named at the time the Kanawha River Bridge, was built in 1891 primarily to give quick, easy access to the Chesapeake & Ohio railway depot. It was the first bridge to cross the Kanawha River in Charleston. The addition of the bridge saw an uptick in the development of the South Hills area. After 45 years of service, the bridge was condemned and dropped into the river in 1936.
The present South Side Bridge was opened in 1936, extending from Dickenson Street south across the Kanawha River, branching onto Bridge Road to the west, Louden Heights to the east, and the exit ramp to MacCorkle Avenue deposits travels at the C&O Depot. The bridge allows both vehicular and pedestrian traffic to cross a roadway, a waterway, and railroad tracks.
The bridge was built with funds from the Works Progress Administration. Designed and constructed by Wisconsin Bridge & Iron Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it is 1,148 feet in length built in the open truss design. The largest span is 420 feet and has a vertical clearance of 15.2 feet. Also called the Dickenson Street Bridge, it carries over 20,000 vehicles daily.
Aside from the basic purpose of any bridge, it has served in other capacities as well. Fireworks over the city are often watched from the span, allowing the crowd an unobstructed view of the light show above and the shimmering reflection in the river below. The Charleston Distance Run athletes have been crossing the span since 1973, signaling the beginning of their grueling assent through South Hills.
Perhaps the most famous story connected with the South Side Bridge features one of West Virginia’s most famous native sons. In 1948, Chuck Yeager, the first person to break the sound barrier, flew a Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star between the South Side Bridge and the Kanawha River. Many stories abound about this stunt, including a former military friend and Charleston attorney, requesting him to fly under the bridge as a treat to the regatta attendees. It has been said, incorrectly, that he flew under the South Side Bridge then continued on down the river, also flying under the Florida Street train bridge and the Patrick Street Bridge as well. Here is the story in the words of General Chuck Yeager:
“I had been visiting my parents in Hamlin, WV. Mom made some great cornbread. My Dad drove me to the airport. I say goodbye, fire up, and take off.
After I take off, I see the beautiful golden West Virginia Capitol dome and fly around it. Just then, and only then, and not before, I notice the bridge and decide to fly under it.
As I come out the other side, I see a lot of boats. A regatta. People are scattering, diving every which way to get out of the way. I pull up long before there is any serious trouble and head back to Wright Field in Ohio….Fast!”
The South Side Bridge was rehabilitated in 1990. It is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
Next month, Looking Back visits Morris Harvey College, now the University of Charleston.
CH&L is excited to announce M. Lynne Squires’ new book ‘Looking Back at Charleston’ will be launched in October at the WV Book Festival, and available on Amazon.
Email your responses about the South Side Bridge, or requests for locations you’d like Looking Back to visit to firstname.lastname@example.org.