Henderson County, Kentucky
In a little more than a year in the early 1930s, Henderson County saw three steel bridges erected, all of which still serve today.
Henderson Countians now tend to take those bridges for granted, but at the time they were built they were regarded as technological wonders - gateways back to prosperity out of the depths of the Depression.
The first of the three completed was the U.S. 60 Bridge over the Green River at Spottsville, which was dedicated on December 18, 1931. The second was the northbound span of what is now called the twin bridges, which was dedicated July 4, 1932. The third was the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Bridge over the Ohio River, dedicated December 31, 1932.
"During this period of bridge building Henderson County has attracted the attention of the middle-west and southern states, for probably no other one county has ever experienced such a bridge building boom at any one time," reported the Sunday Gleaner and Journal.
The two automobile bridges have a couple of things in common: Both were originally toll facilities, and neither is generally known by its official name.
The Spottsville Bridge's official name is the RICHARD W. OWEN MEMORIAL BRIDGE, named after a Daviess County resident who had been a member of the state Highway Commission. It was the first major highway bridge built in the county, according to reports of the time, and spanned a major gap in U.S. 60, which at that time was paved "nearly all the way to Paducah."
The 797 foot long structure stands 90 feet above the Green River and originally sported a tollbooth that charged autos 55 cents per crossing. Reportedly, the toll keeper carried a hog leg pistol and would empty it at any driver who dared to speed across the bridge without paying the toll. The house on the small hill just west of the bridge still has spent bullets in its wall, according to Spottsville residents.
The state stopped charging tolls on August 25, 1945, and reported that in the bridge's first 14 years of operation more than 2.9 million vehicles crossed it.
The Spottsville Bridge was marred by tragedy during its construction. One section of it collapsed and fell into the river, carrying two men to their deaths.
The Henderson-Evansville Bridge over the Ohio River was completed about six months after the Spottsville Bridge was, although the southbound span was erected in 1969.
Since then, the crossing has become known throughout the Tri-state area as the "twin bridges," which rolls off the tongue a little more smoothly than the official name" The BI-STATE VIETNAM GOLD STAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE.
Tolls on the bridge were cheaper - at least for autos - than what was charged at the Spottsville Bridge. Cars with a capacity of five passengers paid 30 cents, which seven passenger cars paid 35 cents. Pedestrians paid only a nickel, which those with steam shovels or threshing machines had to pay the maximum of $5. The state quit charging tolls on March 20, 1941.
The bridge cost $2.4 million in 1932, with the federal government paying about half and the states of Kentucky and Indiana splitting the remainder.
The dedication ceremony was a huge celebration, with the governors of Indiana and Kentucky shaking hands in the middle of the bridge as a squadron of 22 government airplanes swooped overhead, cannons boomed on the shore, and a fleet of ships and boats sounded their whistles. The party lasted three days, and during that time 111,091 vehicles crossed the new bridge.
"The congestion was so great that it required about two hours to drive from the city limits of Henderson to the outskirts of Evansville," the Gleaner reported.
The Gleaner's coverage went on to speculate about the bridge's future, asking philosophical questions on what the next 50 years would bring.
"Civilization will be much further advanced from year to year in the future than it has in the past," but "will the powers of statesmen and mother's love for her boys be sufficient to eliminate further wars? If not visualize the rumbling of .. instruments of death and destruction passing over our bridge in the years to come. Think of the suffering of folks of future posterity, caused by the lust for power and commerce of the nations.
"And possibly the enemy dropping bombs and tearing down in just a few moments the monument it took so long to build - our bridge. It makes one heartsick to even entertain such thoughts."
The driving surface stands about 100 feet above the river at low stage, although the steelwork soars 100 feet above the bridge floor. The main structure is 5,395 feet long - a little more than a mile.
In contrast, the last of the three bridges also stands 100 feet about the bridge deck but is more than twice as long: 12,123 feet.
The L&N railroad bridge dedicated the last day of 1932 cost about $4 million. It replaced one erected in 1885, which at that time was the longest channel span of that type in the world.
The Gleaner's reporter dipped deep into his thesaurus to dredge up prose purple enough for the occasion of the L&N's dedication: "Dwarfing the plan, squat lines of the smaller bridge, a pigmy in contrast, the symmetric proportions of the new span symbolize the finer sense of harmony with the surroundings, and the historic city of Henderson, like a frontispiece of western legendary tales, is proud of the steel highway at her northern door.
"From the days, dark and dank with riotous dreams, when deep woodlands mantled the headland near, this spot has been used for the crossing the Ohio. Long ago, when only rude harbingers of the opulent homes hid in forest aisles, the savage poled his craft. Hardy settlers then made better boats and the century and more watched progress. Then the railroad came and after seasons of ferriage the first bridge was opened 47 years ago.
"Now the dedication today of the modern span marks another step forward for the corporation that has meant so much to the city, state and nation, and sends thrills of pride along the civic spine."
Reprinted with permission.
Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2002 HCH&GS