Bridges Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Bridges are important to commerce in that they permit travel by roadway over otherwise impassable bodies of water, thus making trading easier and faster. Some of the earliest American corporations formed to create bridges.

Since ancient times, human societies have built bridges across waterways, particularly narrow bodies of water such as streams. As local economies increasingly became regional and national economies, the need for bridges increased. At first, ferryboats were used to transport individuals across streams. As the level of trade increased, however, the loads became too large for the boats to handle efficiently, and the cost of making multiple trips by ferryboat resulted in high prices for the goods being ferried. Bridges began to present an economical alternative. In some cases, owners of ferryboats built toll bridges to replace their own ferry services. Early bridges were built of wood, but iron and steel became the materials of choice during the late nineteenth century, particularly for larger bridges.Bridges

When the young American states began chartering corporations shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War, private enterprises constructing and running toll bridges were among the first to be incorporated in each state. Bridges were not yet considered to be a public good that would be provided by the government, so their construction had to be financed privately. As the country spread westward, additional states joined the union, and their legislatures also saw fit to permit entrepreneurs to construct toll bridges. As a result, toll bridges were among the first corporations to be chartered in the eastern and midwestern states. The only corporations to predate toll bridges were canal builders and financial institutions. Even toll roads were not chartered as corporations until after toll bridges were incorporated. In fact, some experts speculate that entrepreneurs were inspired to build toll roads only after it became evident that toll bridges were so successful.

Successful Toll Bridges

The toll bridges built by the early corporations were indeed among the most successful of early American businesses. The bridges over smaller rivers required only a small amount of capital for construction and virtually no working capital. The smallest bridges were often individually owned, but larger bridges required a degree of capital that only incorporating can provide. The first toll bridge corporation, formed in Boston in 1785, was the Charles River BridgeCharles River Bridge company. The bridge was completed one year later. It was so successful that two more Boston bridge corporations were chartered in 1787. No additional bridge corporations were formed until one in Maryland in 1791. The following year, ten bridge corporations were chartered in four states–Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and New Jersey. The first bridge corporation in New Jersey was called the President, Managers, and Company of Rancocus Toll-Bridge. The company sold one hundred shares of stock at $80 each, providing total capital of $8,000.

By the end of 1800, a total of seventy-two bridge companies had been incorporated in ten of the original colonies (none in Virginia, Delaware, or North Carolina), plus one in Kentucky. The Kentucky firm was the Frankfort Bridge Company, founded in 1799 to build a bridge in that city (the state capital). This was the only corporation of any kind chartered in Kentucky before 1800. The number of bridge companies increased greatly during the early nineteenth century. Some of these enterprises had rather long lives. For example, the Piermont Bridge Corporation, chartered in New Hampshire in 1827, was still operating during the 1860’s.

Railroad Bridges

Bridges had to precede the growth of railroads. RailroadsRailroads covered long distances and permitted trade among buyers and sellers located hundreds of miles apart, but transporting freight over great distances meant that many rivers had to be crossed. The most costly components of a railroad, and the most time-consuming to complete, were the bridges. Railroad bridges had to be of superior construction to support the weight of steel tracks and fully loaded trains. In many cases, because of the cost of building the bridges, some railroads had to initially use ferryboats to get trains across wide rivers until the bridges could be built. For example, the Illinois Central Railroad used large steamboats to ferry entire trains across the Ohio River for several years until the bridge was completed at Cairo, Illinois, in 1869. The importance of railroad bridges is demonstrated by the fact that the railroad bridges in the Confederate states were among the favorite targets of Northern troops during the U.S. Civil War.

Bridges provided the link that allowed for countrywide transportation services–whether roads or railways. Although railroads still own their own bridges, the era of privately owned toll bridges connecting roads ended during the early twentieth century, when these bridges were taken over by state highway departments. In some cases, the tolls continued but were assessed by a quasi-governmental bridge authority.

Bridges are still as valuable as ever, and their importance has made them a public good, built and maintained by state funds. The collapse of a bridge on Interstate 35W over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis in August, 2007, raised questions about the conditions of the country’s aging bridges. The Federal Highway Administration subsequently issued a report stating that, as of 2007, more than 150,000 of the nearly 600,000 bridges in the United States were in need of repairs or upgrading, estimated to cost $140 billion.

Further Reading
  • Ambrose, Stephen E. Nothing Like It in the World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. Discusses the role of bridge building for the Transcontinental Railroad and includes several photos of the building process.
  • Davis, Joseph Stancliffe. Essays in the Earlier History of American Corporations. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1917. A collection of essays on various types of early corporations, including toll bridges.
  • Dilts, James D. The Great Road. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993. An excellent history of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, including extensive discussion of railroad bridges.
  • Jackson, Robert W. Rails Across the Mississippi: A History of the St. Louis Bridge. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001. An excellent history of the Eads Bridge over the Mississippi River that was started in 1867.
  • Schuyler, Hamilton. The Roeblings: A Century of Engineers, Bridge-Builders and Industrialists. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1931. History of three generations of a family of bridge builders.
  • Toll Facilities in the United States: Bridges, Roads, Tunnels, Ferries. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Transportation, 1995. An overview of all modern toll facilities in the United States, including bridges.

Army Corps of Engineers, U.S.


Construction industry



Transcontinental railroad

U.S. Department of Transportation


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