Wendel Bollman was born in Baltimore, Maryland on January 21, 1814, the son of German immigrants and the seventh of eight children. He was apprenticed to a carpenter in the city. He was soon working, at the age of 14, on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad as a carpenter laying wooden rails for the line from Baltimore toward Ellicott Mills. Between 1830 and 1837 he worked as a carpenter building houses etc., in Baltimore and as far west as Harpers Ferry. He married Ann Smith and began his family of 10 children.

In 1837 he became associated with bridge building on the B&O. Lewis Wernwag and Benjamin H. Latrobe were building a bridge across the Potomac River and Chesapeake & Ohio Canal to connect the B&O line with the Winchester and Potomac Railroad. The bridge was completed, but Latrobe determined the masonry work was inferior. He ordered the bridge to be placed on falsework, the masonry rebuilt and the woodwork to be strengthened and Bollman was selected to help Wernwag in rebuilding the bridge.  

After it was completed and opened in 1837 Latrobe made him bridge foreman for the entire line. In 1848 he was appointed Master of the Road making him in charge of the right of way and all bridges. In the late 1840s Latrobe was planning to replace his wooden bridges with those built with cast and wrought iron. Legend has it that Bollman started experimenting with model metal bridges in the B&O shops combining some intuition and some computation. In 1849 Albert Fink, a German educated civil engineer, came to work for the railroad. It is thought that Bollman learned engineering skills from Fink. He, possibly with the assistance of Fink, came up with a bridge design that effectively reversed the system used by Latrobe on the Harper’s Ferry and later wooden bridges. 

Latrobe accepted the designs of Bollman. In his 1849 Annual Report to the Board he noted he had contracted “for the reconstruction of the large Bridges at Little Patuxent and at Bladensburg which will be executed in a few months. It is proposed to erect a super structure of Iron upon stone abutments, at each place—with increased span, for greater security against future floods.”  The Little Patuxent Bridge was near Savage, Maryland and the Bladensburg Bridge was across the Anacostia River. They were short span bridges, the Savage Bridge being only 76’ in length and costing $23,825. With these two bridges the B&O began the process of replacing its wooden bridges with iron trusses on Bollman plans.

His first major span, however, was at Harper’s Ferry in 1851 when he was given the task of replacing the 124’ Winchester and Potomac RR bridge span with an iron truss setting on Wernwag’s and Latrobe’s pier and abutment. All iron parts for the bridge were cast or fabricated in shops of the railroad in Baltimore and delivered to the site by rail. The bridge with three parallel trusses to accommodate the rail tracks and turnpike roadway was set on granite towers. The span was very successful and accelerated the efforts of the B&O to replace all its wooden bridges with iron.  

After completing the Winchester span he was awarded a patent for his “Suspension Bridge” on January 6, 1852. He then, like S. H. Long before him, wrote a pamphlet entitled “Iron suspension and trussed bridge as constructed for the Baltimore and Ohio Rail Road Co. at Harpers Ferry, and on the Washington branch of this road.” In it he described his design and construction methodology so others could build to his patent. Many of the bridges built by the B&O for the next 20 years were built by Bollman or to his patent with the exception of those built to a patent issued to Albert Fink in 1854 on the Cumberland to Wheeling segment. Latrobe, with his acceptance of the Bollman and Fink designs became one of the first prominent railroad engineers to endorse the use of iron in railroad bridges. Bollman’s Bridge Companies, along with Fink’s and that of Squire Whipple and his nephews, were the first major iron bridge fabricators in the United States and accounted for most of the iron bridges built in the 1850s and 1860s. After the Civil War all the spans of the Harper’s Ferry Bridge were rebuilt with Bollman Trusses. He died on March 14, 1884 in Baltimore.

His main contribution to bridge building remained his “suspension truss” that was built between 1850 and late 1870s. Many leading engineers of the time criticized the bridge as requiring an excessive amount of iron compared to the Fink, Warren and Whipple Trusses that gradually replaced it just before and after the Civil War. Only one Bollman Suspension Truss remains and is located in Savage, Maryland near where he built his first bridge in 1850. This bridge with two 80’ long spans was originally built on the B&O main line in 1869 but was moved to the current site in 1880 where it has been restored and preserved as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

Robert Vogel of the Smithsonian Institution summed up the career of Bollman stating that he is important “not only because he was perhaps the most successful of the latter (self-taught engineers) class but because he was probably also the last. He may be said to be a true representative of the transitional period between intuitive and exact engineering.”


  • Vogel, Robert, The Engineering Contributions of Wendel Bollman, 1966, Smithsonian Bulletin 240, Papers 36.
  • Griggs, Francis E., Wendel Bollman, Structure Magazine Joint Publication of NCSEA/CASE/SEI, February 2006, pages 55-58
  • Griggs, Francis E., Bollman Truss at Harper’s Ferry, Structure Magazine Joint Publication of NCSEA/CASE/SEI, February 2015