Old Washington Bridge


Washington Bridge Over the Missouri River

By George Bocklage

Congressman Clarence Cannon sent a telegram from Washington, D.C., to local officials here on June 27, 1934, “Glad to advise President today approved allotment of public works funds for construction of the Washington bridge. Congratulations.’’

The news, for which Washington had been waiting for a long time, spread immediately by telephone. 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.

The federal government provided a $428,000 loan and a $175,000 grant. The state highway department also provided $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.

Citizens of Washington had worked since 1926 to get a bridge built over the Missouri River. 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.

The U.S. Congress authorized the Washington Missouri River Bridge Company in 1928 to build the bridge. A group of Washington men had organized the company. Cost was estimated at $1 million. Cost concerns and the Great Depression kept the company from acting on construction.

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.

Bids were opened at City Hall on September 7, 1934. 

The Missouri Valley Bridge & Iron Co. began work on the substructure in November 1934. The contract called for payment of $212,187.50 to set supporting piers. The company delayed work for 60 days in early summer of 1935 due to major flooding. Because the ferry was out of service during that time, motor boats and skiffs transported those who needed to cross. Steamboats pushed barges with material for later use.

When work resumed, wooden frames for shaping metal coffer dams to set piers were placed in the river for the pier closest to the south shore. Heavy metal sheets with tongue and groove edges were placed around these frames and driven down into the river with a pile driver.

Solid rock was not far below the river bed, so little “sand hogging” was necessary, compared to those piers nearer the Warren County shore. There, they were driven deep, as it was about 90 feet to rock bottom.

Workmen who do “sand hogging” labor under high air pressure. The pressure is the greatest where the depth is greatest. The coffer dam, with an open bottom, rests on the sand which is pumped out of the dam to reach rock bottom. Forcing pressurized air into the space inside the coffer dam makes it watertight when it and workers reach the river’s bottom. The air pressure from within forces back the water, sand and silt, permitting work to continue under the stream’s surface.

Before workmen entered the space kept under pressure, they spent time in a conditioning tank to acclimate. Even with that precaution, some were affected by the “bends” (deadly nitrogen bubbles in the blood) and were slowly acclimated to normal atmosphere pressures when they emerged from the high-pressure conditions in the piers.

Concrete forms were placed inside the coffer dam structure. Concrete was poured and given time to set before form structures were removed. Concrete mixers, air compressors and expelled sand were kept on barges anchored in the river where the work was to be done.

Missouri Valley expected to continue work into 1935 without interruption. The following winter, however, was the coldest in 18 years. The river was solidly frozen, causing construction delay. Many people walked or drove across the solid ice when necessary.

Fred P. Summers of Washington, employed on the bridge foundation, died on the job 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. 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. It took 245 men to place the piers, the largest work force on the project.

Most bridge material was shipped by gasoline-powered boats to the site and stored on the banks until needed.  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.

The Washington Citizen reported on June 7, 1935, that the substructure was nearly completed and that the bridge was expected to open early in 1936.

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.

A bronze plate was installed on the south bridge approach with the names of bridge committee members: Mayor F. J. Ruether, O. W. Arcularius and O. F Schulte. This plaque is now displayed at the Washington Historical Society Museum.

The first automobile crossed the bridge on April 8, 1936. O.F. Schulte drove his Hudson with several passengers, including the mayor, L. J. Sverdrup and others.

The bridge’s formal opening was set for May 28, the eve of the 97th anniversary of the city’s founding.

Mayor Fred J. Ruether issued a proclamation requesting all businesses and manufacturing places to close at noon, May 28. The city took on a festive appearance for the event with flags flying and special decorations along the parade route, which city officials said surpassed any previous celebration.

A banquet was served in the City Park Auditorium at 12:30 p.m. to a crowd of 241. Tickets were sold at $1 per plate.

Several speeches were delivered by invited guests, including Governor Guy Brasfield Park and representatives of companies involved in the construction. Judge J. C. Collet of the Missouri Supreme Court delivered the major address.

Alderman Randolph Schaper introduced a resolution noting the long hope of Washingtonians for a bridge and F. J. Sverdrup’s “initiative and ingenuity” to meet “innumerable difficulties and obstacles.” The bridge’s completion was “due more to his personal efforts than to any other.”

The City of Washington and the Washington Chamber of Commerce expressed their appreciation for his achievements in the resolution.

Sverdrup gracefully accepted it and the Washington Civic Orchestra under the direction of A. Ritzmann furnished music. 

A “monstrous” parade began at the Grammar School at 2:30 p.m. and proceeded east on Fifth Street to St. Francis Hospital and the new bridge. A number of prominent bands participated in the parade. Other organizations of Washington, as well as the drum and bugle corps, and softball teams, participated.

Distinguished guests rode in cars near the head of the parade and the attending visitors, from the surrounding territory traveling in autos, were grouped according to their towns.

The dedication ceremony took place at 3 p.m. A delegation from Warren and St. Charles Counties met the Franklin County delegation approaching from the south for a ribbon cutting, which officially opened the span. Numerous speakers gave addresses at the ceremony.

The bridge was “free” for traffic that day after the dedication. Some estimated that 3,000 vehicles and 12,000 pedestrians crossed the bridge on the first day.

Other celebratory activities included baseball games, motor boat races and dances at the city park pavilion.

The next day 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. A third toll taker was on duty throughout the night. Fifty-three men applied for the jobs.

Toll registers cost $575 each and were recommended by Sverdrup & Parcel. A heavy metal safe, to which the employees had no access, was used for receipts. All three devices may be viewed at the historical society museum.

Tolls were 15 cents for a pedestrian one way and 25 cents for a round trip. The same fare was charged for bicycles, horses and motorcycles, and their riders. Higher fares were charged for heavier vehicles such as buses, trucks and farming equipment. The fee for a bus and driver was 75 cents for one way and $1.50 for a round trip.

Passengers rode the bus for 05 cents and 10 cents. Hogs and sheep on foot were also five cents and ten cents. Cattle on foot were ten and 15 cents. An automobile driver was charged 45 cents one way and 75 cents both ways.

The local ferry ceased operation with the bridge’s opening. Harry Schaefer, who previously operated the ferry, became a toll collector.

The next day, the editor of The Washington Citizen ran an editorial on the front page. Among the items he noted:

“All of Washington is proud of this bridge. It opens a traffic way to the north that can be used 24 hours of every day. No waiting for schedules; no waiting for winds to lay (subside); no waiting for flood waters to recede for ice to disappear. Any time—day or night—the bridge is open to accommodate, not only home people and neighbors, but motorists, truckers, truck lines and tourists from all parts of the world. It’s for their convenience as well as ours.  It’s their bridge as well as ours.”

After the city paid the municipal bonds and other debts, it transferred the bridge to the Missouri Highway Commission on September 29, 1951. Three years ahead of schedule, the toll booth closed. Harry Schaefer ended his association with river traffic.

The city celebrated with a parade, ribbon cutting, speeches, reception and dinner for distinguished guests, merchants promotions, a dance at the Marthasville and Washington American Legion Posts and an open house at the VFW.

George Bocklage is a former member of the Washington Historical Society Board of Trustees and a long-time volunteer. He edited the book, "Trilogy of the Big Muddy: Brackenridge, Wellenkamp and Baldwin," for sale on this site.