Saturday, August 28, 1999

Group keeps flags waving over river

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mark Willwerth, of BLC Electric, hangs a new U.S. flag atop the Suspension Bridge in preparation for Riverfest.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        From atop the southern tower of the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, Bob Armstrong gazed at the Cincinnati skyline.

        “Pretty good view from up here, isn't it?” said Mr. Armstrong, standing under a sky almost as blue as the bridge's painted steel. Sunlight glinted off the golden finials, the decorative objects atop the tower's turrets.

        He and others were here on a mission: replace the bridge's frayed and faded flags with new ones.

        The flags, the biggest of which are 8-by-12 feet, typically are replaced several times a year, and always just before Labor Day weekend, when a half-million people congregate along the Ohio for Riverfest.

        “We want people to see the splendor of our bridge,” said Gerard Roberto, president of the Covington-Cincinnati Suspension Bridge Committee. The nonprofit group is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the historic structure, known for its graceful cables and two 230-foot-high towers.

        The span, which was completed in 1866 and formally opened New Year's Day 1867, served as a prototype for Mr. Roebling's Brooklyn Bridge.

        Friday morning, Mr. Roberto and Mr. Armstrong, the committee's chairman of bridge beautification, accompanied a three-man crew to the top of the southern tower. They unlocked a gate — the towers are off-limits to the public — and trekked up 151 narrow, open-air steps on the east side of the limestone and sandstone pier.

        Then Bill Hall, owner of BLC Electric, and employees Mark Willwerth and James Driscoll

        began removing two tattered, faded banners from a 40-foot flagpole.

        “We pay them a fee, but they never charge as much as they could or should,” Mr. Armstrong said. “This is a project everyone enjoys.”

        The project began in the nation's bicentennial year of 1976, when businessman Ed Wimmer, who had an office at the Covington foot of the bridge, decried the lack of flags on the towers.

        He founded the bridge committee that May. Its purpose: continuously display a U.S. flag on the tower closest to Cincinnati, and a 13-star (Bennington) flag on the tower closest to Covington. The Bennington banner was the official bicentennial flag.

        Flags were first raised June 27, 1976; Mr. Wimmer died a few months later.

        Since then, 5-by-8 foot state flags have been added. Kentucky's flies below the Bennington flag on the southern pier; Ohio's is below the U.S. flag on the northern pier.

        The committee also maintains the span's decorative lights; 86 are high-pressure sodium bulbs that give the impression the bridge is wearing a nighttime necklace.

        The cost of maintaining flags and lights is about $20,000 a year, Mr. Roberto said. “We're at the point where we have enough to permanently endow the flag program, but we need money do to the same for the lights,” he said.

        The committee, which has about 120 dues-paying members, has begun a drive to raise $250,000, he said.

        This day, only flags were replaced. The new ones flapped crisply in the morning breeze, accompanied by the hum of traffic on the bridge's metal deck, far below.

        The Covington-Cincinnati Suspension Bridge Committee welcomes new members; dues are $12 a year.

        The committee is also sponsoring a photo contest that focuses on bridges of Greater Cincinnati.

        For information, write to the committee at:

        P.O. Box 17777,

        Covington, KY, 41017-0777.


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