Louisville’s Waterfront Park is a public park operated and maintained by the Waterfront Development Corporation of Louisville, Kentucky. The Big Four Bridge, originally built as a railway bridge connecting Louisville with Jeffersonville, Indiana, spans the Ohio River. The bridge was renovated and reopened in 2013 as a pedestrian walkway. As the most popular attraction in the park, over 1.5 million people cross the bridge on foot or by bicycle each year.
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The Big Four is a railway truss bridge made of 6 spans. The 1-mile long bridge consists of a quarter-mile long ramp on each side of the river, with one-half mile spanning the water. The name, Big Four, comes from the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway, otherwise known as the “Big Four Railroad” or the CCC & StL. The now defunct railway company ended their use of the bridge in 1968. The bridge reopened in 2013 as a pedestrian and bicycle crossing offering a 2-mile round trip journey across the Ohio River.
An extensive system of LED lighting illuminates the bridge from twilight until one o’clock each morning. The LED lights highlight the architectural structure of the steel railway bridge. Lights may be programmed to display a wide variety of differing colors depending on the time of year, or to commemorate special occasions or holidays. Organizations may apply to have the bridge lit to honor their cause or event. All proceeds from bridge lighting go towards the operation of the Waterfront Park.
History: The Big Four was originally built as a railway bridge between 1888 and 1895. The bridge was fraught with construction issues, and 37 men lost their lives in successive accidents during construction. By the time the bridge was complete, the Louisville and Jeffersonville Bridge Company was financially depleted, and sold the bridge to the Big Four Railroad. The Big Four serviced the Midwestern United States, namely Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana. The bridge was rebuilt in 1928 to better handle the increasingly heavy loads of railway freight. In 1968, the Big Four Railroad was absorbed by Penn Central after a merger between the New York Central Railroad system, which ran the Big Four, and the Pennsylvania Railroad. The merger resulted in the discontinuation of the lines running across the Big Four Bridge. When the bridge’s approaching spans were removed and sold for scrap in 1969, the railway span took on the nickname “the bridge that goes nowhere.” By 1970 Penn Central had declared bankruptcy, effectively abandoning the bridge.
The conversion of the bridge to a pedestrian and bicycling crossway had been planned since the mid-1990’s, although no real momentum began on the project until 2009 when construction began. In 2013, the main span of the bridge was complete, and the on-ramp on the Kentucky side of the river was opened. The Indiana ramp opened in 2014. Today, the bridge is maintained and operated by the Louisville Waterfront Park. The 85-acre park is currently in phase three of a four-phase redevelopment plan. The Waterfront Development Corporation that manages the park is a publicly funded agency and relies on a combination of government funding and donations to complete each project.
Ongoing Programs and Education: Kenny Karem is a local author who has compiled a list of 20 questions related to the Big Four Bridge. Each question encourages participants to learn a fact about the Bridge, the Ohio River, or the surrounding area, wildlife and history. The list of questions are accessible online.
Thunder Over Louisville is the park’s most popular event. The large fireworks and air show takes place in April of each year, and signifies the beginning of the Kentucky Derby Festival. It is the largest fireworks show in the United States. Over 600,000 people line the banks of the Ohio River on both sides of the Big Four Bridge to observe the annual event. The bridge itself is limited to crossing traffic only during the fireworks show, and closed during the air show.
What’s Nearby: The Big Four Bridge is located within the 85-acre Louisville Waterfront Park. Additional features of the park include two expansive lawns, several fountains, a playground and children’s play area. It is the largest public park in the United States to offer free WiFi access throughout, and in 2013 received the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence. The national award honors designs that address social and economic inequalities through urban design.
River Rd, Louisville, KY 40202, Phone: 502-574-3768