On March 8, 1855, history was made when a 23-ton railroad engine crossed over the Niagara River on the world’s first working railway suspension bridge. The bridge was an engineering marvel, spanning 825 feet (251 m). Consisting of two levels, it allowed trains, pedestrians, and horse-drawn carriages to traverse the gorge near Niagara Falls. The bridge connected the United States and Canada, and it stood for over 40 years as a tribute to innovating engineering and international cooperation.
None of it would have been possible, had it not been for a 15-year-old boy with a kite.
The challenges of building a bridge across this particular stretch of the Niagara River were daunting. Only a handful of engineers even dared to suggest that such a feat was possible. Many authorities loudly proclaimed the conclusion that no suspension bridge — even if it could be built — would be able to support the weight of a train.
On top of the structural challenges, there were some unique logistical obstacles. The area chosen for the bridge required a structure that would rise 225 feet above a part of the river aptly named the Whirlpool Rapids. The customary way to start a bridge was to use a boat to send a wire from one side of the river to the other. This wire would connect the beginning and ending points of the bridge. The turbulent rapids made boat navigation impossible. Another solution would have to be found.
In the ensuing days, several possibilities were proposed. Among the creative solutions were suggestions of using a cannon to fire the wire across. Others suggested the use of a rocket. Finally, local ironworker, Theodore G. Hulett, came up with the idea of having a kite-flying contest and offering a cash reward to the first person who could successfully fly a kite to the opposite bank.
And so it was that on the cold, windy morning in January 1848, an impressive number of people turned out on the Canadian side of the gorge, armed with kites, and hopeful of winning fame and $10.
Among the hopeful competitors was 15-year-old Homan Walsh. Walsh crossed the river from the American side on a ferry and walked two miles to the spot where the bridge was to begin.
He launched his homemade kite and carefully fed out the string until it was flying high over the American side. All he had to do was wait for the wind to die down, bringing his kite safely to the ground. All day long, Walsh held tightly to the kite string, watching its progress. As the day drew to a close and the winds began to subside, the kite started its gentle descent to the ground. Unfortunately, just before landing, the string broke, making all of the boy’s patient effort a big waste of time.
He was ready to try again, but he had a bit of a problem. Walsh was on one side of the river, and his kite was on the other side. He had to wait eight days before the icy conditions of the river permitted ferry travel to the American side. He located his wayward kite, went back to the Canadian side, and tried again.
This time, Walsh’s efforts paid off. His kite passed over the gorge and landed safely on the other side. Homan Walsh won his $10 prize, and the formidable work of building the bridge could begin in earnest.
The next day a stronger line was tied to the kite string and pulled across the gorge. Then a thicker rope made the same trip. The line was now strong enough to start pulling metal cables across the gorge. Once these master cables were anchored on both sides, suspension cables could be hung from them to attach to a deck.
On January 31, 1848, the Buffalo Dailey Courier published this account; “We have this day joined the United States and Canada with a cord, half an inch in diameter, and are making preparations to extend a foot bridge across by the first of June. Our Shanties are erected and we have a large number of men at work. Everything is going ahead. Men are very busy laying out the town of Bellevue, and are making arrangements for putting up a large hotel. The situation is a beautiful one, and bids fair, in the opinion of many to surpass the town at the Falls.”
Lest one think that Homan Walsh’s accomplishment was merely a childish exercise, a team of experienced kite fliers attempted to reenact the event in 2005. Out of ten teams, only one managed to accomplish that which the teenage boy did over 150 years earlier.