Royal Gorge Bridge

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Royal Gorge Bridge
Cañon City, Colorado, United States
955 feet high / 291 meters high
938 foot span / 286 meter span
1929
World's Highest Bridge 1929-2001


No other bridge in history has been more associated with being the “World’s Highest” than the Royal Gorge bridge, located in the U.S. state of Colorado. Constructed in 1929, the bridge was the highest suspension bridge in the world for nearly 75 years with a roadway 955 feet (291 mtrs) above the Arkansas river. In 2001,China opened an even higher gorge crossing in the form of the Liuguanghe bridge, a concrete beam span with a deck 975 feet (297 mtrs) high. Then in 2003, China opened the 1,200 foot high (366 mtr) Beipanjiang River 2003 bridge, the first of what will eventually be at least a dozen Chinese suspension bridges of greater height.

While the Royal Gorge bridge no longer holds any world records, this Rocky Mountain wonder of wire and wood is still the highest bridge in the United States and one of the most popular destinations in the state of Colorado with more than 500,000 visitors a year. Since its construction, the Royal Gorge has become much more than a bridge but an entire park that includes more than a dozen attractions that can keep you busy for an entire day.

The bridge itself was the brainchild of a Texan named Lon P. Piper who envisioned a crossing for the sole purpose of giving visitors a view of the gorge. With a total length of 1,258 feet (384 mtrs), the bridge required the stringing of two cables, each with 2,100 wire strands as well as the building of two large towers, 150 feet (46 mtrs) and 110 feet (34 mtrs) in height. The construction was undertaken by George E. (Elmer) Cole, a bridge engineer and contractor who would also be responsible for the inclined funicular railway built just a year later and opened in 1931. With an angle of 45 degrees and a length of 1,550 feet (473 mtrs), it is the longest and steepest funicular in North America. The success of these two attractions eventually led to the 1969 installation of an aerial tram which glides 1,000 feet (305 mtrs) above the river. The 35 passenger cabins offer a spectacular view of the bridge on a 2,200 foot (670 mtr) long trip across the canyon. Other attractions that have been added over the years include a miniature railroad, a carousel, a zoo, burro and wagon rides, a theater, a concert pavilion, a gift shop and visitors center and three eating places as well as the Royal Rush Skycoaster, a thrilling swing ride that threatens to throw you off into the gorge. Special events are also held at the bridge, the most spectacular being the “Go Fast! Games” that were held the last weekend in September during the mid-2000s where BASE jumpers from around the world converged on the bridge to leap off into the void of the Arkansas River canyon. A bungee jumping platform was also set up on the side of the bridge. For more information on future Go Fast! Games check out their web site at http://www.gofasteventcompany.com.

Despite all the changes that have occurred over the years, the main attraction at Royal Gorge will always be the bridge. Designed to handle automobiles, you can still drive across the main span of 938 feet (286 mtrs) even though it is primarily used by pedestrians. With more than a 1,000 planks of Oregon fir, the thin deck is unusual for having no vertical stiffening truss, causing some noticeable shakes and jiggles from any vehicle that goes across. All of this makes a stroll over the deck a lot more fun and exhilarating than your average bridge walk. In 1983, two wind cables were added underneath the bridge to reduce unwanted oscillations and movement. The side spans have unequal lengths of 190 feet (58 mtrs) and 130 feet (40 mtrs) and are also where the individual strands of each cable terminate. These exposed anchorages were also rebuilt in 1983.

It may be hard to believe that the Royal Gorge bridge was surpassed in height by 10 other bridges in 10 years but China’s quick and astronomical expansion of their highway system forever changed the concept of what a high bridge could be. But a closer look at the numbers reveals that the total height of a bridge does not determine how spectacular it will look as much as the steepness of the drop-off beneath the bridge. In this regard the Colorado span still holds its own with the north side cliff falling vertically for some 700 feet (213 mtrs). No other high bridge in the world has such an abyss-like drop outside of the west end of the Beipanjiang 2003 road bridge in China which is even higher with a nearly vertical drop of approximately 800 feet (244 mtrs) of its 1,200 foot (366 mtr) total height.

No history of Royal Gorge would be complete without mentioning the railroad that has traveled through the bottom of the canyon in one form or another since 1879. It all started when the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad built a narrow gauge railroad along the Arkansas river to connect with the big mining town of Leadville using survey stakes that were left by the Denver & Rio Grande. Since the D & RG was in a court battle for control of the AT & SF, it all came to a head in what became known as the “Royal Gorge War”. Eventually the case was settled in 1880 with the completed right of way being returned to the D & RG. The railroad continued to operate passenger trains until 1984 when the Denver & Rio Grande Western was bought by the Southern Pacific which later merged into Union Pacific. It would be 15 years before the public would travel through the canyon again.

Although the line was still used for freight traffic, it was not until 1999 before passenger service returned with the formation of the Royal Gorge Route Railroad. Today you can take a leisurely trip through the gorge on a special 2 hour train ride with views of the spectacular scenery from an open car or from the inside of a traditional coach, restored to look much the same as when it ran through the gorge a century ago.

Of the many difficulties faced in building the rail line along the Arkansas river, the most significant engineering achievement was the Hanging bridge, located at the bottom of the gorge almost 1,000 feet (305 mtrs) under the Royal Gorge suspension bridge. To cross a gap in the canyon less than 50 feet (15 mtrs) wide, the supports of the bridge were wedged between the rock walled sides of the river like a giant A-frame. Hanging from the apex are 2 sets of cables that support a 3 girder span of about 300 feet (92 mtrs). The bridge has been rebuilt and modified since it was first constructed and is now supported on piers underneath the deck even though it still retains the original overhead supports. It was designed by C. Shaler Smith, one of the most famous bridge engineers of his time whose most famous work was the first cantilever railroad bridge in the world - built over the Kentucky river in 1877. The Hanging bridge became a popular stopping off point for passenger trains including one famous visit by president Theodore Roosevelt in 1905.

For those who are interested in a much more in-depth history of the railroad, the men who built it, the “Royal Gorge War”, the suspension bridge, the Hanging bridge and the town of Cañon City, I highly recommend the book Rails thru the Gorge A mile by mile guide for the Royal Gorge Route by Doris B. Osterwald. The official bridge and park web site can be reached at http://www.royalgorgebridge.com/. The Royal Gorge Route Railroad website is at http://www.royalgorgeroute.com/

On Wednesday, June 12th, 2013 a large wildfire swept through parts of the park and burned approximately 20 structures including the main gift shop, tramway building and the cliffside restaurant. Luckily the bridge was spared any major damage.



Royal Gorge Bridge Elevation


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Royal Gorge Postcard.


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


BASE jumper Kenyon Salo launches himself from a platform during a Go Fast! Games event that is held every September at the bridge. Photographers catch all the action from a circular 'trampoline' platform suspended beneath the deck. Photo by http://www.ChrisBazil.com


BASE jumper Jack Cravatt leaps into the void. Photo by http://www.ChrisBazil.com


Royal Gorge is no longer the world's highest suspension bridge. By 2015 there will 9 suspension bridges in China that are higher. Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com



Siduhe and Royal Gorge Bridge Height Comparison



Beipanjiang River 2003 and Royal Gorge bridge size comparison



Balinghe River and Royal Gorge bridge size comparison


Photo by http://www.ChrisBazil.com


The BASE jump landing area. Photo by http://www.ChrisBazil.com


Go Fast Sports & Beverage Jet Pack Pilot Eric Scott bumps hands with High Angle Rescue Team Member Hank Caylor. Scott flew across the gorge on November 24th, 2008 in what was the highest jet pack flight ever. He works for Jet Pack International and is the most experienced jet pack pilot in the world with more than 15 years of flying. Photo by http://www.ChrisBazil.com


Photo by Jacob Fuerst, www.JacobFuerst.com courtesy of Jet Pack International.


Photo by Jacob Fuerst, www.JacobFuerst.com courtesy of Jet Pack International.


BASE jumper Jimmy Pouchert keeps his Wingsuit on for a bungee jump. Photo by http://www.ChrisBazil.com


Royal Gorge Bridge and Park entrance buildin that was destroyed in the June 2013 fire. Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Royal Gorge entry plaza. Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Royal Gorge visitors center and aerial tramway entrance building that was destroyed in the June 2013 fire. Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


On June 12th, 2013 a wildfire passed through the park and destroyed most of the major structures. In the above view the fire was ravaging the Pizza/Sub shop but had yet to catch on to the Main Visitors Center shown in the upper left. The Incline Railway engine room building was on fire but the waiting room building with its signature tree sticking through the roof had yet to catch fire. Someone wisely parked one of the incline cars 100 feet down into the canyon, keeping it out of harms way. Image by KDVR.


Image by John Wark.


With the exception of the west station of the Soaring Eagle Zipline, nearly all of the other buildings were destroyed on the north side of the park. Image by 9news.


The Royal Gorge Bridge sustained little damage outside of some burned planks near the south tower. Image by The Gazette.


The Cliff Terrace Food Court was completely leveled. Image by 9news.


The Royal Village Shirt Shop burned in close proximity to the south side cable anchorages. Image by 9news.


Royal Village Shirt Shop remains. Image by The Gazette.


Royal Gorge Park map showing the major structures that were burned in the June 12th wildfire. On the north side they include the Main Gate building, Visitors Center building and Gift Shop, Aerial Tramway and Soaring Eagle Zipline stations, Stryker Rich Trading Post, Pizza/Sub Shop, Incline Railway waiting area and machine room buildings, a bathroom, the carousel and some maintenance buildings behind the bathroom that are not shown. On the south side the structures destroyed include the Cliff Terrace Food Court and Gift Shop, Royal Village Shirt Shop and the Gazebo Theater.

Despite the park having lost most of its major revenue sources, the bridge still stands and is the primary attraction for tourists looking to enjoy the spectacular views of the Arkansas River gorge. All of the destroyed structures can easily be rebuilt in time for the 2014 season.



Image by The Gazette.


The aerial tramway soars 1,000 feet above the Arkansas River. Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Take your pick! You can see the gorge by train, helicopter, tramway, funicular incline, raft or bridge. Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


A small section of the original northeast cable anchorage was preserved in a 1983 rehab. The original steel wire was wrapped around steel pipes embedded in concrete. Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


A view of the northwest anchorage. Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Note the splices between the original 1929 brown cable wires and the new gray wires from the 1983 rehab. Image by Eric Sakowski / HighestBridges.com


Click on Page 2 for the Hanging Bridge, Railway, Funicular and More!

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