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Spans in Time: A History of Nebraska Bridges

Nebraska City's Pontoon Bridge

Spans in Time: A History of Nebraska Bridges, published by the Society and the Nebraska Department of Roads, reviews the history of Nebraska bridges from the earliest temporary spans built by overland emigrants to the modern steel and concrete bridges of the twentieth century. Among the featured bridges is the unique pontoon bridge that crossed the Missouri River at Nebraska City.

photo of pontoon bridge across the Missouri River
The unique pontoon bridge across the Missouri River at Nebraska City, 1888 (Nebraska State Historical Society, N361-24)

Constructing permanent bridges over major rivers required engineering skills and financial resources that small communities could rarely muster. Although railroads had both the resources and the incentive to build substantial bridges when their tracks reached the riverbank, railroad spans did not always provide passage for horse-drawn and pedestrian traffic. Ferries, either small steamboats or flatboats propelled by ropes or cables from the shore, offered limited capacity and sometimes inconvenient schedules. In the winter, rivers could often be crossed on the ice, a risky business indeed when the temperature or water level fluctuated.

Although Congress had chartered the Nebraska City Bridge Company in the early 1870s, by summer 1888 only the new Burlington railroad bridge spanned the Missouri River there. City leaders were receptive, then, when Col. S. N. Stewart of Philadelphia proposed to build a pontoon toll bridge if the community would subsidize its construction. The pontoon bridge, estimated to have cost about $18,000, opened to much fanfare on August 23, 1888. Not only was it claimed to be the first such bridge across the Missouri River, but also the largest draw bridge 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. 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.

While the bridge operated successfully during ice-free months or when the river was not unusually high or low, the capricious Missouri soon created problems. Ice tore loose some of the pontoons in February 1889, although they were captured and replaced. In July heavy rains raised the river and forced the bridge to close temporarily. In January 1890 several pontoons sank, and a month later ice again carried away part of the structure. High water in the summer of 1890 closed the bridge for thirty-five days. It became increasingly clear that a permanent wagon bridge was still needed, and in the spring of 1890 the city fathers began planning an election to vote bonds to build one. Stewart responded by threatening to remove the pontoon bridge.

Voters approved the bridge bonds in July; the courts initially upheld them against a series of legal challenges mounted by the Burlington Railroad. The Burlington claimed it had acquired the Nebraska City Bridge Company's original charter to build the railroad bridge and therefore, the railroad was entitled to the bonds. In the face of these developments, Stewart may have concluded that the pontoon bridge's days were numbered. He must have grown tired, too, of the constant labor and expense required to keep it open. In early November 1890 he announced that the bridge had been sold to parties in Atchison, Kansas. On November 13 the pontoons were sent down the river toward the bridge's new home. A month later, the U.S. District Court ruled the bridge bonds were invalid. Nebraska City was back where it had started.

In 1891 the Burlington laid planks beside the tracks across its railroad span so it could be used as a toll bridge for non-railroad traffic. For nearly forty years, wagons, horsemen, pedestrians, and motor vehicles shared the bridge with the trains of the C. B. & Q. Nebraska City's dream of a permanent vehicular bridge was finally realized on October 14, 1930, with the opening of the Waubonsie Bridge, constructed by the Kansas City Bridge Company. Long gone, but not entirely forgotten, was the innovative pontoon bridge that had briefly seemed the answer to the Missouri River problem.

James E. Potter

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Last updated 29 October 1999

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