Take a trip to northwest Ohio and you’ll find the breathtaking Ohio Electric Interurban Bridge, also known simply as the Interurban Bridge (it has its own Wikipedia page under the same name) or the Roche de Boeuf Bridge. Unfortunately, this historic structure may soon be lost in history: it is slated to be demolished in the fall of 2024, according to the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT).
The 1,220-foot-long bridge spanning the Maumee River was constructed in 1908 and became a part of the Ohio Electric Line that connected Lima and Toledo through Waterville. Inspired by ancient Roman aqueducts, it features twelve earth-filled reinforced concrete arches — a revolutionary design — and, at the time of its construction, was “one of the longest concrete bridges in the entire country,” according to David Simmons, an Ohio History Connection emeritus staffer and a historical bridge expert.
“The idea was to [try] to get [people living in] Wood County and western Lucas County … into Toledo, and vice versa,” Kathy Saco, a member of the Waterville Historical Society, said. “[The electric railway that ran on it] was very popular for about 30 years … Eventually, it became part of the line that linked Toledo with Cincinnati, one of the longest electric railways in the whole country.”
This line — the Cincinnati and Lake Erie Railroad (C&LE) — officially formed in January 1930 when its existing 44-mile track which dates back to 1902, merged with the Indiana Columbus & Eastern and Lima-Toledo Railroad. It ran high-speed interurban cars called “Red Devils” that were remarkable, to say the least.
“In 1930, there was this famous race that appeared in movie theaters throughout the country of a race between a Red Devil … and a biplane,” Dr. Roger Grant, a history professor at Clemson University, said. “The Red Devil — the C&LE car — beat the biplane.”
According to Saco, the car reached an astonishing speed of 97 miles per hour.
Despite the glory of its early days, the Interurban Bridge is not without controversy: it was built on the Roche de Boeuf, a limestone outcropping and historical meeting place for Native American tribes.
“It was considered a ceremonial and spiritual site,” Dr. John Low, a professor at The Ohio State University and a citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, said. According to his elders, it was also a site where warriors from the coalition of tribes that formed to resist American expansion in Ohio would meet, pray and perform ceremonies before the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.
At the time the bridge was built, the construction company had assured the citizens of Waterville that the rock wouldn’t be damaged.
“The railroad said, ‘We’re going to be six feet away — you don’t have to worry,’” Saco said. “‘In fact, that rock will be a focal point and people will enjoy riding out and looking at it for historical value.’”
A third of the rock was ultimately blasted away to plant a support for the bridge. The Toledo News Bee described the desecration as a “triumph of commercialism,” according to the Waterville Historical Society.
Even with its publicity from the Red Devil race, the convenience the railway offered and historical significance it held, the bridge was abandoned in 1937. Interurbans faced competition from automobiles, which provided more flexibility, and economic strain from the Great Depression, according to Grant. The nearby Waterville Bridge, which could support automobile and truck traffic, only contributed to the demise of the Interurban Bridge’s utility.
“The walls began to decay, and the earth was falling out of the sides,” Simmons said.
According to Saco, in the 1930s, the state of Ohio was already looking for a buyer for the newly idle bridge, and one group proposed making it into a bicycle path and pedestrian bridge.
“The state of Ohio offered to sell it to this group for $1,” Saco said. “But when they figured out how much they’d have to pay in liability insurance, the group, which had very little money — remember, this was the Depression era — abandoned it.”
Nearly a hundred years later, the falling concrete and dirt still pose a “real threat,” especially with an increase in canoers and kayakers in the Maumee River, Saco said.
After a feasibility study and public forum in 2019, ODOT put the bridge up for sale in 2021, but finding no buyers, put it up for auction the same year with a starting bid of $1 — a last-ditch effort by the state to save it. While a couple bids were accepted, the insurance costs and planning requirements proved to be too formidable for bidders; none panned out, leaving the state in the same, century-old predicament.
While a specific plan for what will happen to the site after the bridge is destroyed has not yet been determined, attendees at a Transportation Tribal Summit in 2021 discussed ways to commemorate the landmark, according to the Ohio Department of Transportation.
“The Roche de Boeuf was always sacred and will always be sacred,” Low said. “Its desecration doesn’t affect the sacredness of the remainder … and it’s important to preserve it well.”
While the outcropping might be saved, there seems to be little to no hope for the Interurban Bridge to continue standing on the Maumee River. It holds fond memories for locals and visitors alike, and has even served as artistic inspiration for dozens of paintings over the years.
“All we can do is make sure we document its history,” Saco said. “What it did look like, how it was constructed, what it looks like today — and remember it that way.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the interurban versus plane race took place at the Interurban bridge, when it actually took place on July 7, 1930, over a straight, double-tracked course near Moraine between Dayton and Miamisburg. This story was updated on January 3, 2023.