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Wager's Covered Bridge

Washington & Jefferson (WV) MD-21-03x & WV-19-04x Potomac River Unk 4 Approx 800' 1824 1839
In 1776 the only means of crossing the Potomac River from Maryland Heights, Maryland to Harpers Ferry, Virginia was by a ferry operated by the Harper family. The Wager family, Robert Harper's heirs, operated the ferry until 1824 when they built the first bridge across the Potomac.¹ (Harpers Ferry was originally Harper's Ferry, and was part of Virginia until 1863 when this area became West Virginia.)
Lewis Wernwag was the builder of Wager's Covered Bridge. The original bridge consisted of four wooden spans, each approximately 200 feet in length, for a total of 800 feet, resting on three river piers and two end abutments. The truss design is unknown, but it is known that it was a two-lane turnpike bridge. A fifth span was added on the Maryland side to cross the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal when the canal reached the Maryland Heights area, although it is not certain if this span was covered. Traffic entered the bridge at a 90 degree angle from the turnpike on the Maryland side of the river.
An article appeared in the Torch Light and Public Advertiser (Hagerstown, MD) on March 2, 1824 about the contract entered with Lewis Wernwag to build the bridge. The article informs readers they expect the bridge to be completed in about two years which means, if correct, the build date would be 1826. However, the writer may not have realized that covered bridges, even long ones across the Potomac River, were normally completed much quicker than two years:
Harpers Ferry, Virginia, February 25: We learn with the highest pleasure that the proprietors of the ferry at this place have entered in a contract with Lewis Wernwag, a scientific and responsible bridge builder, for the erection of a BRIDGE across the Potomac River. Our pleasure is heightened by the assurance that the work will be actually commenced in the course of a month from this time. Thus will be consummated, in less than two years, one of the most important local improvements ever contemplated in this neighborhood.
Wager's Bridge Alignment
Alignment of Wager's Bridge from 1834 map as shown in Michael Caplinger's book Bridges Over Time.

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad plans called for the laying of tracks from Point of Rocks to Maryland Heights, then cross the Potomac River to Harpers Ferry, Virginia. It intended to use Wager's Bridge as the crossing, expanding it as necessary to accommodate the tracks. The 90 degree angle to enter Wager's bridge from the Maryland shoreline was very difficult for the B&O to conquer. Additionally, they deemed the bridge as not very safe and constantly were at odds with Gerald Bond Wager, the spokesman for the Wager family, over the amount of compensation he demanded for use of his bridge.²
From James Dilts book The Great Road, the Building of the Baltimore and Ohio :
Moncure Robinson, head engineer of The Winchester & Potomac Railroad advised the B&O to build their own crossing because of the difficult curve.
The B&O took Robinson's advice and decided to build its own bridge on a new alignment. The new bridge opened up to rail and turnpike traffic in 1837. It quickly became the primary crossing over the Potomac at Harpers Ferry. The Virginia General Assembly redirected the turnpike traffic from Wager's bridge to the new B&O bridge, although Wager continued to collect the same foot and wagon traffic tolls.
Wager's Bridge and the B&O Bridge (more commonly referred to as Harpers Ferry bridge), remained side by side for two years until 1839 when the B&O bought the remaining toll and ferry rights along the Potomac's south shore, resulting in the dismantling of Wager's Bridge.³
Wager's Bridge & B&O Bridge Alignment
Wager's Bridge and the new B&O Bridge stood side by side until 1839 when the B&O dismantled Wager's Bridge. Drawing from Michael Capplinger's book Bridges Over Time.

UPDATED: May 16, 2013, to include an article about the contract for building the bridge in 1824.

¹ James V. Murfin From the Riot & Tumult, Harpers Ferry (Harpers Ferry Historical Association, Inc., Harpers Ferry, West Virginia: 1989), p. 12.

² Michael W. Caplinger,Bridges Over Time: A Technological Context for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Main Stem at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (West Virginia Institute for the History of Technology and Industrial Archaeology at West Virginia University: 1997), p. 11.

³ Ibid; p.25,28.

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