Bridging Past & Future

Plans for a new Ohio River Bridge
at Milton-Madison prompts
nostalgic look at existing one

Ben Fronczek
Staff Writer

(June 2001) – It was a warm summer night in 1926, and Mary Gladys Wood anxiously awaited the return of her husband, Tom, from the city council meeting. When Tom did appear, he wore an expression of disappointment and heartache.

Milton-Madison Bridge

Mary Gladys knew immediately that something was wrong. The first words he spoke that evening were, “Carrollton has lost our bridge.”
About a year and a half later, another city council meeting took place further west in Madison, Ind. E.M. Elliott, representing the Illinois construction company, E.M. Elliott & Associates, again proposed building a bridge across the Ohio River. Only this time, the bridge would connect the river towns of Madison, Ind., and Milton, Ky.
This time, the idea caught on. A few years later, on Dec. 20, 1929, the Ohio River Bridge opened to the public amid much celebration and fanfare. Now, nearly a lifetime later, talk of a new bridge is under way.
Recently, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet proposed building a new bridge to replace the current one. A study released in 1995 cited three options, and last year, state officials chose to build a future bridge just east of the current one.
A meeting held in Madison in late April to present the long-range plans to Indiana officials rekindled emotions on both sides of the river, where homes and businesses are likely to be affected. Nothing has been finalized yet. Whatever does happen isn’t likely to take place for another decade. Nothing has been decided about the future of the existing bridge once its replacement is built.
Such talk of a new bridge generates fond memories about the old one. While narrow and practically obsolete by today’s standards, the current bridge continues to service motorists, truckers and commuters who depend on it for their livelihoods. It also aids in tourism for both states.
And as many learned during a partial closure of the bridge in 1997 for upgrades and repaving, few in this area could imagine what life would be like without it.

The bridge that never was

Initially, there was talk of a bridge connecting Carrollton, Ky., to Lamb, Ind. According to the 94-year-old Wood, the bridge would have come into Carrollton at the site of present-day Point Park. Back in 1926, Wood’s husband, Tom, now deceased, was extremely active in trying to get the bridge in Carrollton.
“He was so enthused Carrollton would get it,” Wood recalled. “Surveyors came in and said it was an ideal space for a bridge.”
Newspaper accounts of 1927 cited Carrollton as “a logical point for a bridge between Cincinnati and Louisville” that “would be of inestimable benefit to Madison.”
There were, of course, opponents to a bridge there. Ferry boat owners around Carrollton and neighboring Ghent, Ky., knew the presence of a more stationary, around-the-clock way of crossing the river would hurt their business.
To protect their interests, one major Ferry boat owner successfully advocated moving the bridge farther down river to Madison. Wood declined to disclose the name of the Ferry owner or any other officials involved to protect the anonymity of their descendants. She did, however, recall the disappointment of many Carroll Countians when they heard the news.
“I don’t believe there was a citizen in town who didn’t go to bed crying that night,” she said. “We were so disappointed and heartbroken. We sort of resented it for a while.”

Progress down the river

Serious discussions about building a bridge at Madison did not begin until almost a year after the plan for the Carrollton bridge collapsed. E.M. Elliot’s company purchased the land on which the bridge sat from the local ferry company that had previously owned it.
The bridge would be paid for by toll fees. A toll collection shelter was to be built on the Madison side of the river. The cost of the entire project was to be between $1.5 million and $2 million. Starting funds were provided by a New York bridge building company, J.G. White & Co., to be repaid by toll fees.
Following the Nov. 19, 1927, city council meeting at which the bridge plan was proposed, engineers from Elliot’s company conducted a preliminary survey on Nov. 23 to check base lines and statistics on the river stages that had been reported over the last 50 years.
Later that month, the franchise to build the bridge was granted, and on Dec. 20, U.S. Rep. Harry E. Canfield of Batesville introduced a bill to Congress granting the authority for the bridge to be built. It was introduced and successfully passed by the Senate on Jan. 19 of the next year. Two weeks later, legislation was passed to begin the drilling for the location of the piers.
It was not until September 1928 when the first shovel of dirt was lifted by then-Madison Mayor Marcus R. Sulzer and Bedford, Ky., attorney Henry C. Black.
From this point, the construction process carried on for another year. Many still living in the area recall witnessing the entire construction process. Leona McCandless, 84, lived near the bridge along the river when construction was in progress. Her father, Leonard Miles, was later a toll collector on the bridge.
“I had a direct view of it, I was so close,” recalled McCandless, who lives in Milton. “They began building it from both sides, and I remember being so excited when the two sides met and they put the ending piece up.”
The construction process consisted of the building of the piers by workers called “sandhogs.” The Vang Construction Co. poured the concrete. Then the steel was lifted by cranes and assembled from the outside toward the one last link in the middle.
Despite the excitement of area residents, building the bridge was dangerous work. One sandhog, Earl Kelley, 34, fell into one of the pier chambers, or “cassions,” on Feb. 7, 1929, when he and other workers were pouring concrete. The device being used to pour the concrete couldn’t be stopped in time to save Kelley. His body is still buried in the pier closest to the Madison side.
“It was the talk of the town for days,” said Reva Webster, 86, whose late father, Leonard Harmon, was a night watchman for the bridge during its construction. “Everybody was shocked because nothing like that had ever happened in a small town like this,” she said.
Webster, a Milton native who resides in Madison, remembered hearing from her father of another tragedy related to the bridge. As a night watchman, his job involved tending to the lanterns that hung from the steel frame and provided illumination for passing barges.
To check the lanterns, he had to walk on wooden beams that connected the steel structure before the concrete floor had been poured. Harmon was on duty one night in 1929 when a fire raged through downtown Milton, destroying almost the entire town.
Flames began to lick the boards, and he constantly but successfully doused the boards with buckets of water, preventing the fire from spreading to the bridge work. Because the bridge was not complete, Madison’s No. 3 Fire Department truck had to take the Trimble ferry across the river to put out the fire.
Despite such obstacles, though, the bridge was eventually built, and by December 1929, it was ready to be open for public use.

A historic day in 1929

Many still living in the area may remember Dec. 20, 1929, as an extremely cold day.
“Even though it was really cold, a lot of people still showed up, and everyone was going over (the bridge),” recalled Madison native John Burkhardt, now 100 years old but was 28 at the time. “About all of Madison went across that bridge.”
The day’s festivities began at 11 a.m. with Indiana and Kentucky officials meeting at the center of the bridge to symbolize the new connection of the two states. The Kentucky officials were led by the state’s Lieut. Gov. James Breathitt, Jr. He was accompanied by the Ormsby Village band of Louisville. It played “My Old Kentucky Home.”
The Indiana officials were led by Gov. Harry G. Leslie and the Franklin Masonic Band, which responded to the Kentucky anthem with the popular Indiana tune, “On the Banks of the Wabash.”
“It was so cold, the trumpet player’s mouthpiece froze to his lips,” said Madison’s Perin Scott, 82. Scott’s older brother played in the band.
The two state’s leaders then took turns giving dedication addresses. They were followed by a ribbon cutting, which was conducted ceremoniously by the “Queen of the Bridge,” Marguerite Pecar Bray of Milton, Ky.
The Queen of the Bridge pageant had been open to any young girl in the area. Contestants’s pictures had been featured on boxes and placed in the store windows of each sponsoring merchant.
Votes for the contestants were placed in their respective boxes.
When the ribbon was cut, the first person to speed across the bridge was an 11-year-old on his bicycle. The first vehicle to cross was a Greyhound bus.
The participation and attendance that day came not only from Madison and Milton, but also from the neighboring Kentucky communities of Bedford and Carrollton, and the Indiana communities of North Vernon, Scottsburg, Versailles and Vevay. A large parade was held after the initial crossing, and it was said to have been the largest ever held in Southern Indiana up to that time. The different towns and businesses sported representative floats, some which had queen candidates on them.
“We couldn’t look very glamorous because we had to be so wrapped up, since it was so cold,” recalled Webster, who was among the queen candidates.
The day was capped by a surprise visit by 10 airplanes from Indianapolis that circled Madison in a congratulatory manner and dropping 100,000 leaflets with a printed greeting from the capital city.

High above the Ohio

When it first opened, it cost a nickel to walk the bridge one way and 45 cents to drive across. Area residents began to feel the impact immediately.
Howard Jones, 88, spent 38 years working for the Kroger Co. meat department and saw a dramatic increase in business.
“I know it made a big difference for traffic in the store,” he said. “I think a lot of it was probably people coming over from Kentucky. I felt like the bridge was well accepted. It brought a lot of Kentucky people over to trade and visit.”
Though its structure has pretty much remained the same, the Ohio River Bridge has experienced some changes over the years.
The first significant change occurred on Dec. 10, 1937, when the bridge changed ownership. The Kentucky Department of Highways bought it from E.M. Elliot and Associates, making it a state entity.
According to a 1947 publication, the Department of Highways financed the purchase by issuing Commonwealth of Kentucky Bridge Revenue Bonds. However, tolls were still collected in order to maintain the bridge.
The toll shelter on the Madison side collected the fee of 45 cents.
Scott, whose father operated a grocery called Elmer E. Scott & Co., remembers his father commenting on the tolls. “My father’s trucks were carrying grocery products to retailers every day. My father often jokingly said, ‘I feel like I own a part of that bridge.’ “
Scott also recalled his wedding day when every car in a caravan to his reception in Kentucky had to stop and pay a toll to cross the bridge.
But the tolls did not last forever. The bridge was “freed” on Nov. 1, 1947, with a dedication ceremony full of speeches, music and food.
“I remember they made burgoo, and everyone wanted a piece of it,” said McCandless. “That was down at Kiwanis Park that day. There were 1,000 people there for the actual freeing of the bridge. The fact it was freed was a major event. It was like finding gold at the end of the rainbow. There was a lot more traffic immediately.”
The toll-free traffic has continued across the bridge to this day. Even though state officials say the bridge is too narrow by today’s traffic standards, the people of that earlier day were impressed with its dimensions.
“It was so huge in those days. We thought it was wide,” Wood said, laughing. “It was truly a sight to see, though. It still is a great bridge with such a pretty view.”

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