Iron Bridges Were ’Kings’ for Decades

Tue April 10, 2012 - Northeast Edition
Jay Adams

Zenas and Maranda King in photos taken in 1848.
Zenas and Maranda King in photos taken in 1848.
Zenas and Maranda King in photos taken in 1848. A King Bridge Company structure in Manistee, Mich. Two bridges of this era — bowstrings with the Zenas patent — must have brought particular pride to the company founder. One was this two-span, 210-ft.-bridge built for the Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. A sign from one of the 5,000 bridges built by the King Bridge Company during its 64-year history.

Allan King Sloan, 81, is the great-great grandson of Zenas King, founder, in 1858, of the once-famous King Bridge Company. When it closed 64 years later, it had built as many as 5,000 (documented) iron bridges across New England and America, and, perhaps as many as 10,000 (undocumented, but being discovered over the century).

Some of these spans are still in operation. like “Old Nan,” the well-known Niantic River Bridge in East Lyme, Conn., which is a 105 years old and counting.

Sloan wasn’t born when the King Bridge Company closed its doors in 1922. But he has done extensive research on his family’s past.

“In searching an old trunk in the family attic, I found the pages of a book called the ’Encyclopedia of Biography,’ apparently written in the 1920s, documenting the lives of prominent Cleveland families. It contained the following entry for ’Zenas King, Inventor, Executive’: ’each great practical scientific achievement that has meant comfort, convenience and utility to the world has had connected with it one outstanding name, the name of a benefactor of his kind for all time to come. What Bell is to the telephone, Morse to the telegraph, Fulton to the steamboat and Goodyear to the vulcanized rubber industry, Zenas King is to the science of building iron bridges.’ I was astonished by this sweeping statement, and it certainly inspired me to keep on looking,” said Sloan.

Vermont Birth, Ohio Bound

Born in Vermont in 1818, Zenas King was 40 when he became involved in the iron bridge business. He had worked his father’s farm in upstate New York before migrating to Ohio at age 22, where he became a successful carpenter-builder and clothing merchant in Milan, Ohio.

He built homes, and then became a salesman for a company manufacturing iron farm implements in Cincinnati. A family man, with a wife and four children to support, he decided to make a fortune building iron bridges.

“He got restless and had a mid-life crisis,” said Sloan. “In 1858, he became a salesman for Thomas Moseley, a Cincinnati bridge builder who had invented one of the first practical tubular arch bridges made completely from wrought iron boiler plate. Zenas represented Moseley at many bridge lettings, mainly in southern Ohio. This experience captured his imagination and he obviously thought he could do well in the business.”

According to an article written by Sloan, in the 1840s and 50s there were a number of people who saw the possibilities of iron bridges and began to patent designs, build production facilities and market these new bridges to local officials.

“These were the pioneers in a field that by the end of the century would claim to have more than 600 companies associated in one way or another with the iron bridge building business. However, in the 1850s, there were just a handful of iron bridge builders located mostly in the Northeast and upper Midwest,” added Sloan.

King had a vision as to how bridge building could evolve from a local craft to a national industry. He systematically charted a course to achieve this end, which required, according to his great-great-grandson, “A number of bold initiatives which he undertook in the decade surrounding the Civil War. There was a tremendous boom all over the country. He had salesmen all over the place.”

The Five ’P’s’

Those initiatives involved five “P’s,” — patents, production, pitch men, publicity and pecuniary insight.

“He got a patent for a new bowstring arch truss, which was supposedly more efficient than the Moseley. He fabricated them in Cleveland and then shipped them out. He and another guy set up their operations in Cleveland where the iron bridge business and railroads were centered. It was a gateway to the West,” added Sloan. “This was the reverse of the process for stone and wooden bridges where the major materials were often available at or near the site itself. His were shipped quickly to the building sites, distant sites.”

King also patented the “swing bridge,” one of the first designed, and was able to recruit and organize a network of sales agents all over the country. In the 1860s, King had paid representatives in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Iowa, Missouri and Texas, in addition to those operating out of the office in Cleveland.

As for “pecuniary insight,” King was able to further his ambitions by creating a “well-capitalized” business structure with the formation of a stock corporation (with a $225,000 investment), peopled by Cleveland’s “merchant princes,” who were in enterprises that could complement and support bridge building. Among them were the owners of a foundry and rolling mill company producing iron for railroad tracks, and a railroad tycoon, banker and civic leader who helped found the New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad and the Ohio Central Railroad.

By 1870, after a solid decade as a bridge builder, King was well-established as an important member of Cleveland’s business elite. He and his family had moved to a mansion on Euclid Avenue, known as “millionaire’s row,” where John D. Rockefeller lived.

Head West, Head Out

King was obsessed with heading west to the new frontier. After two years of bridge making, with the production of nearly 100 structures for clients in Kansas, Minnesota, Arkansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Texas, King aggressively pursued the western market from the sales operation he set up in Des Moines, Iowa. By the mid-1870s, the King Bridge Company had built more than 2,700 bridges, many of them patented bowstrings, and was building up to 300 new spans per year (more than half of them were showcased in three states — Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania, where the competition from other bridge companies was toughest, according to Sloan.)

However, there were a number of “bragging bridges” built west of the Mississippi, including a 1,000-ft. (305 m), six-span bridge across the Mississippi River at Minneapolis.

Two bridges of this era — bowstrings with the King patent — must have brought particular pride to the company founder, said Sloan. The first was a two-span, 210-ft. (64 m) bridge built for the Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia.

“The publicity given to the King Bridge Company as a result of being awarded this contract was a large feather in the company’s cap, even though the bridge has long since disappeared,” said Sloan.

Not so with one other King bridge of the period, which still stands today. Protected as a national historic landmark and mentioned in Eric DeLony’s “Landmark American Bridges,” Zenas King would undoubtedly take even more pride in the 400-ft. (122 m), three-span King patent bowstring arch bridge built for the U.S. Army across the North Platte River at Fort Laramie, Wyo., on the Oregon Trail.

Built in 1875, it is believed to be the oldest existing military bridge west of the Mississippi. The bridge became a vital link between Cheyenne, Fort Laramie and the military outposts, Indian agencies and gold fields of the Black Hill Dakota region.

“That is still there. It is probably the most famous of the bowstrings,” said Sloan.

80 Miles of Bridges

The fear of collapse was a feature of the iron bridge industry in the early days, King included. Two King-built bridges were involved in collapses, both in New England. The first was a railroad bridge near Rutland, Vt., which collapsed as a railroad engine was making its way across. The engineer was pinned under the overturned tender that crushed his leg, and he later died. The second was the famous collapse of one span of the King bowstring bridge built in 1872 across the Merrimac River in Groveland, Mass., less than 10 years after it was put in operation.

“That caused quite a stir in the civil engineering fraternity, adding fuel to the fire of the campaign against the King designs begun in 1878 by Professor Vose of the Civil Engineering Department of Bowdoin College in Maine, objecting to the design of this bridge between Brunswick and neighboring Topsham across the Androscoggin River,” added Sloan. “Vose was pushing for ’disinterested trained engineers’ to consult and inspect bridges. The collapse of the Groveland Bridge was used as the example.”

By 1882, the King Bridge Company had produced 5,000 structures or the equivalent of 80 miles of bridges all over the country. More than 600 specific bridges were listed in the company catalogue, distributed in four major regions; close to 200 in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states with more than half of these in New York alone.

Bridges and Pools

In 1883, King, age 65 and in the later stages of his career, signed an agreement with 16 other bridge companies to form a pool to control and share profits from highway bridge projects. In exchange for preferential treatment in its home area of operation, each company would contribute 13 percent of its profits on a specific job into the pool, which would then distribute the accumulated sums to the participants based on the size of the company.

The King Bridge Company and the Wrought Iron Company of Canton (Ohio) were the largest in the pool and thus the chief beneficiaries of the arrangement. King was appointed to an executive committee to control and arbitrate among the pool participants.

“Such ’bridge trusts’ were common in the industry at the time but were later targets for antitrust litigation after the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed by Congress in 1890 and parallel legislation was adopted in various states, including Ohio,” added Sloan.

Bridge builders were backing away from the old bowstrings and the American standard design was being used by more and more builders, including King. There was less prestige in producing relatively small iron bridges across small rivers and streams than by the large, dramatic engineering and architectural marvels spanning the major waterways.

Those spans produced fame for the great civil engineers of the age — the Roeblings, father and son, whose Brooklyn Bridge became the hallmark of the bridge builders, and also Gustav Lindenthal, George Morison, James B. Eads and others.

Family Expansion

Most construction companies are family affairs, and the King Bridge Company was no exception. In the 1870s and 1880s, King had three sons, a son-in-law, a nephew and his grandson working in the firm.

Youngest son Harry King was named secretary and a director when he became of age in 1887. He would be involved in the operations of the company with eldest brother James until the end. By 1887, the company’s management and board of directors included five Kings out of nine directors. When Zenas King began withdrawing from active management of the firm, James was designated to succeed his father as the president and Harry was elevated to vice president.

On Oct. 25, 1892, Zenas King died at the age 74, just 18 months after his wife’s death. The legacy that Zenas King left to his heirs was impressive. It included a nationally known bridge- building company, one of the top dozen such firms in the country, and enough wealth so that his sons and daughter and their spouses could live very comfortably in Cleveland society.

Despite his death, the company flourished. In the period from 1894 to 1903, it was able to increase the output of its bridge shop from 18,000 tons to 30,000 tons a year and to maintain its position as the largest bridge company based in Ohio, and second only to the American Bridge Company in the near Midwest. Most of the King bridges that can still be found in operation were built during the time when James led the company.

To meet the challenges of the times, the company began to put more stress on building bigger bridges for the railroads, including swings, trusses, cantilevers, etc. and more emphasis on non-bridge building, including steel framing for structures like shopping arcades, office buildings, factories, grandstands, etc. It also began to feature more of its considerable talent in civil engineering, represented by some of the outstanding engineers of the era, like Albert Porter and Frank Osborn, who started out in the company then went on to have brilliant careers and establish their own companies.

While the King Bridge Company’s strategy was apparently to remain a family-controlled concern, one of its chief rivals, the American Bridge Company of Chicago, had successfully moved in another direction. By 1890, American Bridge was controlled by J. P. Morgan & Company and was about to be absorbed into Morgan’s massive conglomerate, the U.S. Steel Corporation.

“The strategy of American Bridge was to expand by purchasing other bridge companies. While the Kings were busy cementing their family firmly into control of their business, American Bridge was busy buying up their rivals, 24 of them representing over fifty percent of the nation’s bridge building capacity in the first year alone. Apparently the King family was approached to join in the combine, but resisted and decided to go it alone,” said Sloan “J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie were forming what would be, eventually, U.S. Steel. They were buying up all the mid-level companies, like John D. Rockefeller did with oil companies. King decided to remain independent, but…”

Taken Down by the Government

The new century landed hard for King Bridge. The pooling arrangement started in the 1880s caused “bridge trusts” to be actively pursued by the federal and state governments for seeming violations of anti-trust laws. Since King had played a leading role in setting up the pooling arrangements, his firm was a prime target for government lawyers. The state of Ohio brought suit against 13 bridge companies, including King, to oust the offending corporations.

James King was the victim of a botched appendix operation. He was laid up for months with a wound that never did heal. From then on, he was bedridden and miserable, hardly able to function in a business capacity. Harry King was forced to play a large role in running the company. The court case was lost, and the King Bridge and other companies were stripped of their Ohio franchises.

To stay in business, the King Bridge Company had to be reincorporated under the more tolerant laws of the state of New Jersey in May 1906.

During their final decade, there was one more outstanding engineering triumph, the Detroit-Superior High Level Bridge across the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. It functions today as one of the main connections between the east and west sides of the city. This bridge was designed by the Cuyahoga County Engineers office, and the King Bridge Company won the contract to build the center span of the structure.

It took the years 1912 to 1918 to complete and at the time it was the largest double decked reinforced concrete structure in the world. It was to be the last important project of the company and is currently being rehabilitated to continue in operation into the next century.

’Old Nan’ Still Running Trains

King bridges are scattered throughout New England. The most famous of which is “Old Nan,” officially called Amtrak Bascule Bridge No. 116.74 between East Lyme and Waterford over the Niantic River. Built in 1907, it is still carrying trains in Amtrak’s busiest northeast corridor between New York and Boston.

Because it is no longer feasible to repair, it will be fully replaced by May 2013. Its replacement will allow Amtrak to increase speeds on and near the bridge and minimize traffic delays. The old bridge, one of the oldest movable bridges in the nation, will have lasted 107 years when removed.

The estimated $104.7 million contract is a joint venture between Cianbro Corp. of Pittsfield, Maine, and Middlesex Corporation of Littleton, Mass.

Other King Bridges that were prominent throughout New England included the Brunswick-Topsham Bridge in Brunswick, Maine, which lasted from the early 1880s through 1914 when it was washed out in a flood; three truss bridges across the Androscoggin River from the 1890s in Jay, Maine; The Summer Street Retractile Bridge in Boston, built in 1892, which lasted until 2003 when it was replaced as part of the “Big Dig” project (the bridge plate was salvaged for the King family); and the Beverly-Salem Swing Bridge in Salem, Mass., built in the 1890s and in service until the 1970s, when it was replaced by a modern fixed bridge.

“In New England, we haven’t got much left,” said Sloan. “The King Bridge Company always put a bridge plate on their work so people could identify them. The ’Old Nan’ has the 1907 bridge plate on it, although it’s about ready to fall off. It’s rusted, but hanging in there.”

A Virtual Museum

The company has been commemorated in several ways. There is a collection of King Bridge Company material in the archives of Cleveland State University. M.I.T.,Cambridge, Mass., once housed a large collection of Berlin Bridge Company memorabilia, donated by Victor Darnell, former chief engineer at Berlin.

“I believe, however, that M.I.T. closed the library and shipped all of Darnell’s stuff to California to Cal Tech,” said Sloan. “UMass at Amherst has got a historical bridge collection. They have a place at the Amherst campus with an actual bridge park. They take old bridges and put them there on campus through the Civil Engineering Department at UMass. We’ve been in touch with the people there.”

James A. King died in 1922 at 75, and during the autumn of the following year, the King Bridge Company was officially disbanded. Zenas’ old boss had already moved to New England and had started the Thomas Moseley Bridge Company, which was absorbed into the Berlin Bridge Co., the major iron bridge builder in New England.

“The company went out of business in 1922, but left no records,” said Sloan. “My grandfather was the last man in the business. They did have a sales catalog of the bridges they sold, listing them and we got a lot of our information from that.”

Today, Zenas and Maranda King and their children rest with their families in a cemetery plot in Lakeview (Ohio) Cemetery under the shadow of the imposing monument to President Garfield and a few paces from the obelisk erected on the gravesite of John D. Rockefeller.

The monument on Zenas’ plot is “modest by the standards of some of the neighboring families of Cleveland’s 19th-century ’merchant princes’ as was his ’fortune,’ modest by modern standards.” But the monuments to his accomplishments, as an imaginative bridge-builder and a creative business entrepreneur remain, although disappearing fast.

For old iron bridge buffs, beyond Sloan’s Web site, which is the only virtual museum on the company, there are two other Web sites that can illuminate historians and the curious: and

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