Funds were raised for the Mississippi River Bridge 75 years ago

Sunday, September 9, 2001

It had been a long five days.

More than 150 volunteers had been working round-the-clock to convince townspeople in Cape Girardeau and surrounding communities to buy stock that would help finance a Mississippi River bridge.

"It's ironclad," they said. "It's not a matter of patriotism. It's a matter of business. It's a matter of investing your money at home."

The argument worked.

They raised more than $400,000 during the five-day drive, which took place 75 years ago this week. Meyer-Albert Grocer Co. chipped in $5,000. W.O. Ragsdale gave $1,000. Mueller & Co. Meat Market gave $500, as did Milde Coca-Cola Co. and Golden Grain Creamery. Minnie Farrar managed $100.

Less than two years later, the Mississippi River Bridge was in place, helping transform Cape Girardeau from a small town into an economic hub drawing visitors and travelers from all over.

"I know Cape wasn't bigger, but it seemed like it," said Mary Ellen Ueleke, 83, whose father was a toll-taker at the bridge until the toll was removed in the 1950s. "After the bridge opened, people in Illinois would come over here, and we'd see more people downtown. It really changed things."

'It's really monumental'

How the money was raised -- expeditiously, joyously and privately -- is a story that fascinates a generation used to seeing public tax dollars go toward bridges and roadwork and watching everything get bogged down in governmental red tape.

"In a similar situation, selling stocks to help build a toll bridge, you could do it, but I sure wouldn't want to be saddled with that responsibility," said John Mehner, president of the Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce. "Especially in those times, under those circumstances and in that time frame. That is huge. It's really monumental."

Factoring in inflation, $400,000 is roughly the equivalent of $3.8 million in today's dollars.

By contrast, Cape Girardeau's new Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge is expected to cost more than $100 million and is scheduled to replace the 73-year-old bridge in 2003. The process isn't speedy as in 1926, with delays due to cracked bedrock making the new bridge at least a seven-year project. The first bridge was built in just over 18 months.

Mehner said the only citizen participation for the new bridge will involve raising $110,000 toward $440,000 in aesthetic lighting. They won't begin seeking donations for that money until next year, he said.

The 1926 bridge drive raised that much the first day.

"They were doing a lot for their community," Mehner said.

Recouped through toll

But people saw their money as more than a public service -- they saw it as an investment.

The stocks were said to be a sure thing. A St. Louis financial house, W.R. Compton Co., one of the leading in the nation and one of the most aggressive, would bear the brunt of the financial burden.

The firm just wanted people in the area to come up with $300,000 -- one-fifth of the $1.6 million, 4,744-foot bridge that would finally connect Cape Girardeau and Southern Illinois.

Investors were promised that the money would be recouped through the $1 toll, and stockholders would get their money back with interest. A public bridge company would be formed so the bridge would belong to the people.

But there was little traffic on the bridge, so the tolls never amounted to enough to pay the costs of bridge operation and maintenance. In fact, the toll's receipts for the first two years were only $89,000, which didn't even pay on the bridge's bond indebtedness, not to mention the investors.

That was the pattern year after year.

Cape Girardeau resident Paula Kempe, 95, said her father invested $500 to the bridge drive.

"He never got a cent back," she said. "He always said we ought to be able to go over that bridge for free."

Kempe said that it's easy, with benefit of hindsight, to see how advantageous the bridge has been. But back then, as people began to watch their money go down the river, they became bitter.

"There was a lot of hate about the bridge," she said. "People had bad feelings about it for a long time."

Why it lost money

What happened is a matter of record. The bridge lost money from the start because roads in Illinois were not built, and no one seemed anxious to drive across the bridge only to be greeted by gravel.

When the Illinois roads to Anna were built, five years later than they were promised, the bridge had sunk into such a financial mess due to its failure to pay on the bonds. Foreclosure proceedings were instituted on June 24, 1932.

"People were really frustrated," Kempe said. "They didn't want to look at it like it was going to be a great asset for the next generation. They wanted a return on their investment like they had been promised."

The bridge was then sold at public auction to private interests, which did make some money for 11 years. Then it was bought by the Cape Special Road District in 1943. In 1957, the road became toll-free.

While the bridge never made money, comments from residents old enough to remember suggested the money was well worth it.

"Before the bridge went up, Cape was just a sleepy little backward country town," said 88-year-old Homer Gilbert. "It didn't seem to progress at all. It's just my opinion, but it seems the people then weren't really civic minded. When I was a child, the town didn't seem to move at all."

But when the bridge officially opened Sept. 12, 1928, that changed, said Gilbert, who was 15 when the bridge first saw traffic.

"It's hard to say how much the bridge had to do with it, but it seemed to begin to progress then," Gilbert said. "The city changed somehow. There seemed to be more progress, and we've been on that same avenue ever since."

Ferry system

Paul Miles, 89, remembers using the ferry system to cross the river.

"You could put your car or some cattle on the ferry," he said. "But the bridge was a big improvement, that's for sure."

Former Cape Girardeau Mayor Howard C. Tooke -- whose own parents could barely afford the $100 bridge bond -- said regardless of the outcome, the bridge changed the area for the better.

"No matter whose idea it was or whose fault it was or who gets the credit, it was a good thing for the city," said Tooke, who is 83. "They knew the bridge was needed."

The matter has become a moot one, as the new bridge goes up and the old one stands ready to be dismantled in 2004.

"The bridge isn't worth much anymore, I guess," Tooke said. "But they're going to be letting her rest soon. I'd say she deserves it."

335-6611, extension 137

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