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etter Roads’ production manager, Linda Hapner, sent me, as she does, a story idea. A
wonderful read about a short-lived 1880’s bridge.
The ingenuity would be valued today, although the technology is obsolete. It
felt like a modern story populated by modern people, the good, the bad and the others.
It was about the power of the elements, about engineers, bridge designers and builders,
townsfolk, ﬁnanciers and railroads.
It’s from Spans in Time: A History of Nebraska Bridges, edited by James E. Potter and L.
Robert Puschendorf (Nebraska State Historical Society, 1999).
In those days when railroads bridged rivers it was often only for their trains, no
passage for horse-drawn and pedestrian trafﬁc or livestock. Crude, unreliable ferries
were the only choice. Sometimes, in deep winter, unpredictable ice could be crossed.
Summer 1888, and only the new Burlington railroad bridge spanned the Missouri
River at Nebraska City. Colonel S. N. Stewart, of Philadelphia, offered to build a
pontoon toll bridge if the community would subsidize it. Costing $18,000, the bridge
opened August 23. It was proclaimed the ﬁrst such bridge across the Missouri and the
largest drawbridge of its kind in the world.
“The pontoon section crossing the main channel was 1,074 feet long, with a
1,050-foot cribwork approach spanning a secondary channel between an island and
the Iowa shore,” writes Potter. “The roadway, including two pedestrian footways, was
twenty-four-and-one-half-feet wide. Opening the “draw” (the V-shaped portion that
could swing open for boats or ﬂowing ice) provided a 528-foot-wide passage. Tolls for
round trip crossings were set at ﬁfty cents for double teams, forty cents for single teams,
a quarter for a horse and rider, a nickel for pedestrians, and from ten to two cents each
for horses, cattle, sheep, and hogs. The bridge was considered a signiﬁcant engineering
feat and was featured in articles published in the Scientiﬁc American and Harper’s Weekly.”
Mostly the bridge worked well. But it suffered major damage when the wild
Missouri ﬂooded and from wrecking-ball chunks of ice. It
was in and out of service.
So in spring 1890 the city fathers planned a bridge bond
election. A displeased Colonel Stewart threatened to remove
his pontoon bridge.
The bond passed and courts upheld it against Burlington’s
claim that it deserved the bond money. Colonel Stewart said
enough. He sold his bridge to Atchison, Kansas, and ﬂoated
it downriver to its new home. A month later, the U.S. District
Court ruled the bridge bonds were invalid, writes Potter, and
Nebraska City was back where it started. In 1891 Burlington
adapted its bridge to carry non-railroad trafﬁc.
by John Latta, Editor-in-Chief
I never tire of reading about the adventures of road and
bridge builders. They make you feel good, don’t they?
Better Roads September 2012 3