Memories set in steel

Wednesday, September 3, 2003

Rust and age have stripped away the beauty of the old Mississippi River bridge. But there are no tarnished memories for those who attended the dedication of Cape Girardeau's first river bridge 75 years ago today.

"It was just awesome to see," recalled Cape Girardeau resident Jane D. Stephens, who was 8 years old at the time.

The Southeast Missourian proclaimed on its Sept. 4, 1928, front page that the bridge dedication was "the greatest event in the history of Cape Girardeau."

The newspaper estimated the day's crowds totaled 30,000 to 40,000 with celebrations on the Southeast Missouri State University campus and down by the bridge.

Cape Girardeau's span operated as a toll bridge until June 29, 1957, when the city held a "bridge freeing" celebration marking the end of tolls.

But when the bridge first opened, no one minded the tolls. People were just glad to have a bridge.

Packing a lunch

Stephens and her family lived in Fredericktown, Mo., at the time. They packed a picnic lunch and made the 50-mile trip to Cape Girardeau just to see the dedication of the bridge on Sept. 3, 1928.

"We rode across the bridge later in the day," she remembered. "It was so neat to go across the bridge and look up and down the river and see the boats there."

Clarence "Cutter" Schade, of Cape Girardeau, and a classmate from St. Paul Lutheran School in Jackson walked across the span that day.

"We just thought it was something to cross that bridge," said Schade, now 87.

Schade, who walks about a mile a day, hopes to have an opportunity to walk across the new Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge when it opens Dec. 13.

The new, four-lane bridge will replace the old, two-lane span.

Schade said he'll get on the new bridge even if it takes the help of his two sons.

"If I can't walk, they'll have to wheel me across," he said.

Paula Kempe, now 97 and living in the Lutheran Home in Cape Girardeau, was part of a group of young women who danced on the grounds of old St. Vincent's Seminary as part of the entertainment for the bridge dedication. "I was pretty then," a smiling Kempe said Tuesday.

Cape Girardeau, she said, had never seen such a celebration or such an impressive structure.

"It was absolutely beautiful. It was just spectacular to see," said Kempe who remembers walking onto the bridge.

"I was scared," she recalled. "I just stood and looked up and down the river."

Kempe said the dedication had the feel of a fair with bands, food stands and pageant queens.

"The river was just full of barges and boats," she said.

The whole town turned out for the celebration, along with residents from other cities in the region, Kempe said.

Businesses closed. Schools dismissed classes.

"Everything shut down," she said.

The Southeast Missourian reported that roads leading to Cape Girardeau were jammed with motorists intent on seeing the dedication. Additional police were brought in from the St. Louis area to help with crowd control.

An Army blimp showed up for the celebration and landed at the Cape Girardeau Country Club.

The celebration kicked off with a parade involving 744 cars and trucks, several municipal bands and drum and bugle corps from across the state.

The newspaper reported that the only disappointment was that a planned fireworks display fizzled when an employee of the fireworks company failed to catch the train in Chicago.

Until the bridge opened, people used ferries to cross the river.

"It was a big deal for Cape," Kempe said.

Sam Baker, then governor of Missouri, formally opened the bridge. The formal ceremonies, which began with a parade at 10:30 a.m., didn't conclude until late afternoon.

The bridge was opened to automobile traffic late in the day and thousands of cars crossed the span, the newspaper reported.

Ironically, the bridge was closed to traffic that night and remained closed until Sept. 12 so construction workers could finish surfacing the Illinois approach. Over 200 cars paid the toll to cross when it opened that day.

The next weekend, the ferry that Capt. A.C. James had operated for 21 years, went out of business.

Kempe knows the old bridge won't last. It's slated to be demolished next spring, which she said makes sense.

"The beauty of it is gone," she said.

But in her memories, the bridge is still beautiful.

"It was wonderful," she said. "I would never forget it."

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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