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Nebraska City's Pontoon Bridge

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. Nebraska City leaders were receptive, 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 drawbridge of its kind in the world. The pontoon section crossing the main channel was 1,074 feet long, with a l,050-foot cribwork approach spanning a secondary channel between an island and the Iowa shore. The roadway, including two pedestrian footways, was 24.5 feet wide. Opening the "draw" (the V-shaped portion that could swing open for boats or flowing ice) provided a 528-foot-wide passage.

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. 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 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 the railroad span so it could be used as a toll bridge for non-railroad traffic. 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 at Nebraska City.

(January 2000)



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