For the last 135 years, the Big Four Bridge has towered over the Ohio River, connecting Louisville, Kentucky to Jeffersonville, Indiana with a nearly half-mile-long stretch of sprawling concrete and massive iron beams. Currently a scenic pedestrian walkway, Big Four sees an average of 1.5 million people cross the river each year. At night, multicolored lights decorate the soaring metal structures, a sparkling show that adorns the horizon of downtown Louisville.
While the Big Four Bridge is commonly known as a key tourist attraction and historical landmark of Louisville, it provides no shortage of benefits for the quiet, peaceful town of Jeffersonville as well. In 2019, five years after Big Four first opened as a pedestrian walkway, Jeffersonville mayor Mike Moore told the News and Tribune that the bridge has “had a huge impact on the city … It’s made our quaint little hometown appreciated by people who may have never discovered it otherwise.”
Such is the case for Louisville resident Jana Meyer, Associate Curator of Collections at the Filson Historical Society.
“I can’t say that I was in Jeffersonville very much at all before the bridge,” she said. “But I’ve definitely been more times because of the Big Four Bridge than I would be otherwise.”
Despite this, the Big Four Bridge wasn’t always a harbinger of growth and development — in fact, the popular tourist attraction has had a long history of failures since its initial construction in 1888.
Meyer, who has conducted research on the historical landmark during her time at the Filson Historical Society, said that although the idea for the bridge was initially proposed by Jeffersonville, the project eventually became a joint venture between both Kentucky and Indiana.
While the exact impetus behind the construction of the Big Four Bridge remains uncertain, Meyer believes the growing popularity of rail transportation during the late 1800s shifted focus away from boats traveling on the Ohio River to trains going across it.
“Rail traffic is becoming more important during this era,” she said. “We’re making a transition from old steamboats that are traveling the river into more of a country where a lot of goods are transported by rail.”
Long before the first train even crossed the bridge, however, a multitude of problems began to arise.
According to Bridges and Tunnels, a total of 37 people were killed during construction of the Big Four Bridge. While working on one of the bridge’s piers, 12 workers drowned after river water flooded the area. Several months later, another four died as a result of a broken wooden beam during work on a separate pier. Years later, in 1893, strong winds dislodged a construction crane, which in turn collapsed support structures and dropped 41 workers into the river, 21 of whom were killed.
The bridge was finally completed in 1895, costing a total of $3.5 million, the equivalent of $123.7 million today. The multitude of unfortunate events during the bridge’s construction left the Louisville and Jeffersonville Bridge Company financially unstable, and the company was sold to the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway — nicknamed the “Big Four Railroad” — giving the bridge its famous moniker.
The Big Four Bridge’s propensity for bad luck, however, didn’t end with its construction. In January 1918, 13 years after the first interurban made its way across the bridge, two more interurbans collided in a snowstorm, killing 3 and injuring 20.
In 1928, just over 30 years after its initial completion, the Big Four Bridge was once again shut down for construction to build a new, reinforced structure, a result of the increasing size and weight of transportation railroad cars.
Another 40 years later, Big Four’s rail service ceased yet again — although this time, for good. In 1968, a merger between New York Central Railroad (the company that operated the bridge at the time) and Pennsylvania Railroad caused the bridge to become abandoned to save maintenance costs, and pieces of its approach spans were even sold for scrap metal. The bridge’s existence as little more than a monument to its tragic construction and a bygone era of rail transport led to a bleak nickname: the “bridge that goes nowhere.”
Some, however, saw potential in Big Four’s empty, forgotten iron skeleton.
Local Louisville architect Jasper Ward, famous for his plans to convert abandoned grain silos into high-rise apartments, proposed an idea to repurpose the Big Four Bridge into a shopping center, a scenic experience that would draw consumers from Louisville and Jeffersonville alike. His designs were elaborate, including concept sketches and maps detailing the land that would need to be acquired and how it would be used.
While Ward’s plans never became reality, they nevertheless kindled the beginnings of Big Four’s eventual rebirth.
“[Ward’s] interest in the bridge and his proposal made people think about different ways that we could end up doing something different with that bridge,” Meyer explained. “Eventually, the idea of turning it into a pedestrian walking bridge comes to fruition several decades later.”
In the early 1990s, Louisville city officials began work on the Waterfront Master Plan, a detailed initiative to create welcoming recreational spaces and public parks near the river. Renovation of the Big Four Bridge became a crucial part of remaking Louisville’s Ohio River landscape.
Finally, in May 2014, Big Four reopened for business after a 46-year hiatus, transforming from a railroad-highway at the forefront of industrialization to a welcoming walkway for pedestrians to bridge the gap between two communities across the river.
Today, the Big Four Bridge is not just a scenic footpath across the Ohio River or a tourist destination of downtown Louisville — it is a symbol of hope, a representation of how communities can come together to rekindle life in relics of the past and create something extraordinary in the process.