The new bridge over the Meramec River at Pacific is set to open to traffic Tuesday, June 5, at 10 a.m.
The county has yet to designate a name for the new span, according to Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer, but the Meramec Valley History Museum and Genealogical Society (MVHM&GS) has offered an opinion.
The society is asking that the commission consider renaming the new bridge the Withington Ford Bridge, which was the official name of the old bridge, although it was known locally as the Bend Bridge, probably because of its location where Bend Road reaches the Meramec River.
As early as 1892, Franklin County residents began to petition county leaders for a bridge over the Meramec at this point, known as Withington Ford crossing, one of two low-water spots to ford the river.
The ford at the bridge location was named for landowner John Withington, who settled on a large tract of land on the west bank of the Meramec in 1831.
A second ford, known as Priest’s Ford for the horseback priests from St. Louis who crossed at this point to reach St. Patrick of Armagh parish, was located below the Frisco Railroad Bridge.
Fording the river at either site was treacherous. Many people drowned crossing the Meramec, including a beloved priest, Father John McCaffrey, who drowned crossing the river on horseback at Withington Ford to visit a sick parishioner in 1857.
A drowning that overshadowed all others occurred in March 1904 when the wife and daughter of Joseph Withington were drowned when their buggy attempting to cross the Meramec at Priest’s Ford, was swept into deep water by current. The two women dressed in heavy clothing were unable to swim.
Another daughter, Edna, who was able to rid herself of some of her clothing, pulled herself up by a tree branch and clung to it for two hours until she was rescued.
When word went through the town of the accident, men with boats and equipment rushed to the scene. They worked well into the night to retrieve the bodies.
The loss of two prominent ladies and the rescue of the traumatized girl who witnessed the death of her mother and sister and then clung to a tree branch in cold March temperatures, electrified the town.
Residents of the Bend community stepped up their petitions to the county commission, then known as the country court, to build a bridge at the site of the Withington Ford.
After 25 years of petitions, in January of 1915 Franklin County judges (present-day commissioners) reached a decision to build a bridge over the Meramec at Pacific.
As soon as the decision was made, a wrangle arose over where the bridge would be located that threatened to scuttle the project.
Some residents favored building the bridge at the site below the railroad bridge because the ground there was practically level and they said a bridge at that location would serve the greatest number of people.
But the residents of the Bend neighborhood persisted in their quest for a bridge at the Withington Ford.
The question of the best location for a safe crossing became so contentious that the editor of the Pacific Transcript began to worry that the bridge would never be built.
“All fair-minded men must agree that the bridge should be built not next year or years from now when the present generation has died off but now,” the editor lamented in a front page editorial. “They must also agree that being built out of public funds it should be located in the place where it will serve the greatest number of people.”
The editor suggested that a contingent of Pacific leaders go before county judges and asked two things: one, that a bridge be built and, second, that the county judges select the site.
“If the people in the Bend are sincere in their efforts to obtain a bridge they will gladly accept this proposition once and for all and settle this deplorable and otherwise hopeless situation,” the editor wrote.
Six months later, on the evening of Monday, June 29, 1915, Franklin County Presiding Judge Tibbe and First District Judge Myers drove to Pacific with the good news. The bridge that had been asked for so long to connect the neighborhood of the Bend with Pacific was near enough to be considered a certainty.
“It will not be built this year, but the court has the finances of the county in hand so they can assure it next year,” the Pacific Transcript reported.
It was decided the bridge would be built at the site of the Withington Ford.
Nine bridge companies bid on the project, which was awarded to East St. Louis Bridge Company. When the bidder asked to be released from the bid, Miller & Borcherding, St. Louis, agreed to build the bridge for $13,832, which was completed in December 1917.
The bridge was to be constructed using a pair of 200-foot Pennsylvania trusses for a total span of 422 feet with a 15-foot roadway.
Although it was officially the Withington Ford Bridge, because of its location at the end of Bend Road the bridge generically became identified as the Bend Road Bridge and later the Bend Bridge.
Jeff Titter, MVHM&GHS board member and history buff, concluded that the question of naming the new span might take on a life of its own.
“I am fine keeping the name Withington Ford Bridge, but I am sure people will still call it Bend Bridge,” Titter said.