One of the largest celebrations in Jefferson City's first 70 years was held 125 years ago two weeks ago. Jefferson City was getting a bridge crossing the Missouri River, and the groundbreaking celebration on that date was a monumental success. It was an occasion to celebrate, born out of reality and necessity. The following day, the State Republican newspaper reported there were "fully five thousand people in line" for the parade and "over eight thousand present for the ceremonies."
The work to build a bridge at Jefferson City arose from an attempt in the Missouri Legislature of 1893 to move the Capitol and state government to Sedalia. The legislation failed by only a slim margin, which prompted the formation of the Jefferson City Commercial Club that championed the campaign to build a bridge at Jefferson City. The lack of easy access to the city and lack of linkage to the two rail lines in Callaway County were the major talking point in that effort to relocate the Capitol to Sedalia.
The Commercial Club began efforts to gain approval of the federal war department and legislation, which would allow construction of a bridge. Jefferson City Bridge and Transit Company was incorporated to solicit funds, and the engineering firm of J.A.L. Waddell was employed to make necessary measurements of the river to draw plans for the bridge.
Plans for two bridges were drawn up at two locations in Jefferson City. A high bridge proposed to cross the river at the north end of Madison Street and a low bridge proposed to cross the river at the north end of Bolivar Street.
The war department approved the high bridge and denied approval of the low bridge. The federal legislature passed a bill allowing construction of the high bridge with the provision that construction was commenced by May 31, 1895, allowing only one year.
The proposition of A.J. Tullock, proprietor of Missouri Valley Bridge and Iron Works, was selected as the construction firm. Shortly after, the construction firm reported the cost of building a high bridge was significantly higher than was originally estimated and that it simply might be impossible to construct, given the technology of the time.
Prospects for the construction of a bridge had become quite gloomy, considering the fact a low bridge was not permitted under the current charter. J.C. Fisher, a representative of Jefferson City Bridge and Transit Company, concluded he would make a trip to Washington, D.C., to make one final plea for the low bridge charter. Before Christmas of 1895, the measure was passed through both houses of Congress; and on Jan. 5, 1896, President Grover Cleveland signed the measure into law.
The Commercial Club resumed its efforts to secure the funds necessary to construct the low bridge while the construction firm began in earnest, making final plans to build a low bridge with rotating draw span at the north end of Bolivar Street.
Sedalia was not yet done with their efforts to move the Capitol to Sedalia. On the morning of Feb. 20, 1895, a well-organized scheme to accomplish this goal began to unfold in the Missouri legislature. Within five hours, both the House and Senate had approved a relocation bill. They approved it overwhelmingly, 91-40 in the House and 26-7 in the Senate. The provision of that bill was there would be a referendum vote by the public in the general election of November 1896 as to whether the Capitol would be moved to Sedalia. Completing the bridge in a timely manner became an imperative.
The construction firm was not yet ready to commence building the bridge. Nonetheless, the ground-breaking ceremony was quickly organized and took place only 10 days before the charter expired. Actual evidence of tangible progress did not appear until early August 1895 when construction of a caisson for the central pier of the draw span commenced.
The conditions for the construction of the bridge during the winter of 1895-96 were difficult. The construction firm made all efforts to stay on schedule and by late winter 1896, they were ready to install the superstructure. Work on the steel superstructure commenced on Jan. 11, 1896, and was completed Feb. 26, 1896. A total of 47 days were required for the most visible portion of the bridge, and on March 22, 1896, the draw span was opened for the first time. By mid-April 1896, the bridge was essentially complete and awaiting traffic.
The opening of the bridge was officially celebrated on May 22, 1896, and traffic commenced. The celebration of the bridge opening was almost equal that of the ground-breaking ceremony.
The bridge was completed by a corporation with private funding. It was partially paid for and maintained by toll fees charged for crossing the bridge.
The rest of the story is that the Capitol Removal Proposal was defeated by a statewide vote of 65 percent in favor of retaining the Capitol in Jefferson City.
Wayne Johnson is a Jefferson City native and retired engineer and chemist. For the past two decades, he has worked closely with four local historical societies, setting up websites, digital imaging, search and retrieval of those images and now compiling brief general histories of people, places and events in Callaway and Cole counties' early history.