Back in 1936, the opening of the first vehicle bridge over the Missouri River at Washington was such a monumental event that Mayor Fred Ruether declared a half-day holiday. He issued a proclamation requesting all businesses to close up shop by noon Thursday, May 28, so everyone could attend the parade and bridge dedication ceremony that afternoon.
Current Mayor Sandy Lucy isn’t going that far, but she is hoping as many people as possible will turn out this Saturday, Dec. 1, for the activities and ceremonies celebrating the new bridge.
“This is a tremendous milestone for our community and the entire area,” said Mayor Lucy, noting this is only the second time in Washington’s history that this has occurred, and it will be a 100 years or so before it happens again.
For that reason, she is particularly hopeful that a large number of children will attend the event Saturday.
“They have the best chance of being here someday when we open the third bridge,” said Lucy. “It’s a milestone. It might not seem like that to our younger generation, but it certainly is . . . Their parents need to write in their journals or baby books about the bridge opening and take a photo of that. This is monumental.”
The opening of the new Route 47 bridge is bittersweet for everyone who appreciates the architectural features of the old bridge, which has become an iconic image over the last 80-plus years. For decades, people have been drawn to the riverfront to pose for photos with the bridge span in the background.
The new bridge is a girder style, while the old bridge is a Warren thru truss style. The difference isn’t in just how the two bridges look, but how they function.
“The Warren thru truss carries the load above the driving surface, and a girder style carries the load below the driving surface,” said Judy Wagner, Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) area engineer, noting the girder style is the most economical type of bridge to build for this size.
The new bridge, which is expected to last between 75 and 100 years, features two 12-foot driving lanes with 10-foot shoulders, as well as a bicycle/pedestrian trail, a scenic overlook, decorative fencing, benches and lights to illuminate the piers.
It is 2,560 feet long with 4,500 cubic yards of concrete on the driving surface, another 7,400 cubic yards of concrete on the rest of the bridge, and 5,781 tons of structural steel, said Wagner.
There are girders varying in height from 10 to 16 feet and spanning up to 500 feet across the river supporting the bridge, along with 15 drilled shafts. Each 10-foot diameter drilled shaft is 60 to 75 feet long and embedded into bedrock up to 20 feet.
More than two years since a groundbreaking ceremony for the new bridge was held in August 2016, the new bridge construction is on time and on budget, said Wagner, noting the project is not 100 percent complete yet.
There is touchup and cleanup work still to be done, she said, as well as the installation of aesthetic lighting, taking down the old bridge, reopening the riverfront trail on the south side and constructing a trail on the north side.
“We have a long way to go, but we are just ecstatic to get this done with all the obstacles you overcome on a major river bridge construction — floods, weather, all kinds of environmental concerns that are out of our control,” she said. “So it’s very exciting to have it done and open to traffic on time. We still have a lot to finish up, so we will continue.”
The bridge is scheduled to be open to traffic next week, and the completion date for the entire project is scheduled for July 2019.
Bob Zick, who served as chairman of the Highway 47 Bridge Committee since he was appointed in 2007 by then-Washington Mayor Dick Stratman, said he’s pleased at how well and how smoothly the project came together.
“It’s just very gratifying,” Zick remarked. “Very gratifying to be getting very close to the end here. We are just delighted that we are finally seeing the structure completed.
“One of the joys has been the way everyone in the community and the state and the legislators all chipped in, and we never really experienced any opposition or problems, whatsoever. We had a challenge finding money, but we never had any real complaint or opposition to replacing the bridge. Everybody recognized it was a safety necessity and everybody got on board, chipped in and got it done,” said Zick.
“We are just very delighted that everybody pitched in together and it was a huge community joint effort,” he added.
Old Bridge Was Deteriorating
The cost of the new bridge is $63 million, with 80 percent provided by the federal government, 20 percent by the state and $800,000 from the city of Washington and Franklin and Warren counties for the enhancements. The $1,400 raised by local schoolchildren in a penny drive helped fund the enhancements.
The need for the new bridge was due to deteriorating conditions of the old bridge and it had become costly to repair. Millions of dollars were spent to extend the life of the old bridge, including $5 million in 2009.
Two years earlier, members of the Washington Area Highway and Transportation Committee (which had been created by Washington Mayor Bernie Hillermann) urged Mayor Stratman to appoint a committee to work exclusively on getting a new bridge built. That recommendation came after the collapse of the Interstate 35W truss bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minn., on Aug. 1, 2007, and the closing of the Washington bridge several days later for emergency repairs after structural damage was discovered during a regular inspection.
When the Old Bridge Was New
Before the first Missouri River bridge at Washington was built to connect Franklin and Warren counties, people relied on ferryboats to get across the river. And waiting for the ferryboat then was like waiting for a bus today — not only did you need to know the schedule and make sure you weren’t late, but there often were delays.
The bridge, which people could get across by walking, riding a bicycle or driving a car, made life much simpler, according to people like Dottie Bolzenius and Virginia Nadler, who shared their memories of when the old bridge was new for a feature story that appeared in The Missourian Sept. 24-25, 2016.
The bridge provided people with more choices for work, services, shopping, recreation and entertainment. They did have to pay a toll to use the bridge for the first 15 years.
Bolzenius, who lived on a farm in Augusta when the bridge was opened, recalled how once she was old enough to go to work, she took a job at KDK Shoe Factory on Fifth Street in Washington. On Fridays, she would cash her paycheck and walk across the bridge, because the toll was cheaper for foot passengers than a car, and her father would pick her up on the other side.
Much like today, getting the first bridge built took a decade from when local citizens began making a case for it to when the bridge was open to traffic.
“Citizens of Washington had worked since 1926 to get a bridge built over the Missouri River,” George Bocklage of the Washington Historical Society wrote in a story that appeared in The Missourian Jan. 3, 2017. “In that year, they approached the State Highway Commission about construction. The state decided not to participate, but local citizens began planning for a toll bridge.”
A group of Washington men organized the Washington Missouri River Bridge Company. In 1928, the U.S. Congress authorized it to build the bridge.
“Cost concerns (estimated at $1 million) and the Great Depression kept the company from acting on construction,” Bocklage wrote.
“In June 1933, authorization was transferred to the city of Washington. In that same year, the Washington Chamber of Commerce convinced the Missouri State Highway Commission to contribute funds. The city hired Sverdrup & Parcel to design the cantilevered truss bridge, which became a project of the Public Works Administration. Sverdrup & Parcel also would supervise bridge construction.”
No one worked harder to have the bridge at Washington built than U.S. Congressman Clarence Cannon, Elsberry, who represented this area in the U.S. House for more than 40 years. It was Cannon who sent a telegram from Washington, D.C., to officials here on June 27, 1934, with news that finally the bridge was a go:
“Glad to advise president today approved allotment of public works funds for construction of the Washington bridge. Congratulations.’’
The news spread like wildfire.
“Blaring whistles and ringing bells informed the general public. The fire siren sounded for several minutes, frightening people. The Boys Band played on street corners that evening,” Bocklage noted.
To fund the construction, the federal government provided a $428,000 loan and a $175,000 grant, and the state highway department provided another $200,000.
“The city would pay off the loan by selling municipal revenue bonds. Bridge tolls would fund bonds. Once financing was secured, construction could proceed in the near future. The city agreed to operate the bridge,” Bocklage wrote.
Delays and Injuries, Then and Now
Bids for building the bridge were opened at city hall Sept. 7, 1934, and one month later, the Missouri Valley Bridge & Iron Co. began work on the substructure, said Bocklage. The contract called for payment of $212,187.50 to set supporting piers.
“Most bridge material was shipped by gasoline-powered boats to the site and stored on the banks until needed,” he wrote. “At the southern site, two stairways were built, one from the railroad tracks to the south bank and another from the tracks to the top of the bluff.
“Once piers were completed, construction of the superstructure began from both the north and south bank. Overhead steel structures and the roadbed were to meet in the middle, after which concrete would be poured for the road surface. Stupp Bros. Bridge & Iron Company won the contract for the superstructure work with a bid of $345,493.”
Work continued steadily from August to October 1935, with progress becoming noticeable. The first concrete was poured in November 1935. Riveters ended their work January 1936.
In building the old bridge, it took 245 men to place the piers, the largest workforce on the project.
With the new bridge, there may have been that many workers over the entire course of the project, said Wagner, explaining that overall the building of the new bridge has been a much simpler process than what was needed the first time around.
“Construction technology has increased greatly, to not only improve the production, but also the safety of our workers,” said Wagner.
Flooding was a cause for delay in building both the old and new bridges. Work was delayed for 60 days in the early summer of 1935 due to major flooding.
There were more delays that winter when the Missouri River froze solid. It was the coldest in 18 years with temperatures as low as 30 to 50 degrees below zero.
With ice measuring between 5 and 20 inches thick, people didn’t need a bridge to cross the river, Bocklage noted. They were able to walk and drive across as needed.
In building the new bridge these last two years, there was only one significant delay, which came in spring 2017, said Wagner. After nearly 11 inches of rain fell between April 26 and May 5, 2017, Alberici Constructors Inc. was delayed close to a month due to flooding.
Back in the 1930s, there was one man who died on the job while building the bridge. Fred P. Summers of Washington, who was employed on the bridge foundation, died by drowning.
“He lost his balance while pushing driftwood away from a barge tied to the bank north of the freight depot and fell into the river,” Bocklage noted. “He was standing on the barge, holding a long pole while pushing a log lodged against the barge into the current. He fell into the river when the pole slipped out of his hand.
“Swift current drew him under the barge, making it impossible to escape. His body was never found. His was the only death during the project.”
In building the new bridge, there were only a couple of minor injuries to workers these last two years, said Wagner.
First Bridge Opening
The first automobile to cross the bridge in 1936 was driven by O.F. Schulte who drove his Hudson across April 8 with Mayor Ruether, L.J. Sverdrup and others as passengers.
The formal opening of the bridge was held more than a month later on Thursday, May 28, the day before the 97th anniversary of Washington’s founding.
“Flawless weather marked the occasion,” a front page story in The Missourian’s June 5, 1936, issue reported.
More than 10,000 people attended the opening ceremony, which included a banquet, a parade through town, a ribbon cutting to officially open the bridge to traffic, concerts and a dance in the evening.
For a few hours that day, crossing the bridge was free, and it’s estimated that some 3,000 vehicles and 12,000 pedestrians crossed.
Jim Feltmann Sr., who was 11 at the time the bridge opened, was one of the first to ride his bicycle across the bridge once it was finished.
“People ask me, ‘What did you do when you got across?’ Nothing, there was nothing over there. I just turned around and came back,’ ” he told The Missourian in 2016.
Tolls Averaged $111 for First Five Days
The very next day, May 29, at 8 a.m. two toll takers and two toll machines (one for the north lane and one for the south) began operation at a small building on the southern approach to the bridge, said Bocklage. A third toll taker was on duty throughout the night. Fifty-three men applied for the jobs.
To serve as toll collectors, the city council selected Harry Schaefer, who had previously operated the ferry service, along with Cornelius Andrae and Edwin Thias, with Fred Rombach, Raymond Oberhaus and Oscar Wilmesherr elected as alternates.
The tollhouse for the bridge is remembered by Washington residents who were children when it was in service “as a gathering place for all the neighborhood children.”
“The toll keepers were great storytellers,” Ruth Wilson, who was 6 years old in 1934 when construction on the bridge began, wrote in some notes about her memories in a family photo album. “Once in a while the keeper would let a youngster push the gigantic ticket handle down to register what just went by, and that was a great thrill.”
Tolls were 45 cents for a car one way (or 75 cents roundtrip) and driver and 75 cents for a bus and driver, with an additional 5 cents for each passenger. Pedestrians paid 15 cents for one way or 25 cents for a roundtrip.
“The same fare was charged for bicycles, horses and motorcycles, and their riders,” noted Bocklage. “Higher fares were charged for heavier vehicles such as buses, trucks and farming equipment.
There also were toll charges for livestock crossing the bridge. Hogs and sheep were 5 cents. Cattle was 10 cents.
The first five days that the bridge was open, tolls averaged $111.30 a day, according to The Missourian’s June 5, 1936, issue. Almost $200 was collected the first Sunday.
“On Aug. 14, 1951, the city of Washington entered into an agreement with the State Highway Commission to transfer the bridge to the state,” the MoDOT website notes. “The city estimated that there would be sufficient revenue to pay off the bonds at the end of September that year and a transfer date of Sept. 29 was agreed upon. The city was able to transfer $5,000 from the bridge maintenance fund to the state for continuing maintenance.
“The Washington bridge became toll free at noon on Sept. 29, 1951, amid a large celebration.”
It was three years ahead of schedule.