On this day in 1855, a train passed over the first railway suspension bridge at Niagara Falls, New York. The bridge spanned 825 feet, connecting Niagara Falls, Ontario, with Niagara Falls, New York. Trains used the upper deck; pedestrians and carriages used the lower deck. The bridge transformed the region economically: trade and tourists began to pour into the area.
Before the bridge, people crossed the river by boat, mostly the tourist vessel Maid of the Mist, which traveled right up to the falls, giving its passengers an eyeful of natural beauty. Most people scoffed at the idea of a bridge, especially one that could support a train. An engineer named Charles Ellet Jr., a rather dramatic personage with a flair for showmanship, developed some interesting ideas for attaching a line across the tremendous gorge that involved firing cannonballs and rockets.
He settled for a contest: he offered $5.00 to any boy who could fly a kite across the gap from the Canadian and tie the kite string on the American side. Streams of young boys attempted the feat, one boy accomplished it after a few days, and Ellet’s men tied a heavier line to the kite string and pulled a line across the gap, continuing to do so with heavier and heavier lines. In 1848, Ellet became the first person to cross the gorge by bridge when he went across in a basket. Later, he made the trip in his horse-buggy, standing like a gladiator. The bridge was 250 feet above the water.
By 1860, more than 45 trains traveled the bridge each day. The toll was 25 cents per person and 50 cents per horse carriage.