Last to pay way across bridge tells toll tale

Friday, June 14, 2002

erry H. Burchyett is part of the lore of the Mississippi River bridge at Cape Girardeau. He planned it that way.

But he didn't plan to be remembered as the last person to pay a toll to cross the bridge, which is the way history has it. He wanted to be the first to cross the bridge into Missouri without paying the toll.

"Hey, I planned this thing carefully," said Burchyett, who now lives in St. Charles, Mo. "I wanted to be the first free driver across the bridge from Illinois."

The lifting of the toll was a widely heralded event with several special activities surrounding it. Queens were selected from Missouri and Illinois to reign for the day. A street dance was held, followed by a giant fireworks display. A crowd of about 20,000 watched the hour-long fireworks display.

Officials had planned down to the minute when the toll would no longer be required to cross the bridge. It would be 5:30 a.m. on June 29, 1957. Sixteen cars had lined up on the Missouri side to await a free crossing.

Fees had been collected for 11 years prior to that as assessments by the Cape Girardeau Special Road District to pay off bonds used to fund bridge construction. The fees ranged from $1 for a car to $5 for trucks over 10 tons. The round-trip cost for a car was $1.25.

On the Illinois side, Burchyett had made his own plans.

"I lived in McClure," he said. "I sold pies, wholesale, to restaurants. I knew the bridge was going to be freed, so I planned my early morning drive carefully."

Keeping an eye on his watch, Burchyett said he approached the bridge from the Illinois side slowly, letting a couple of vehicles pass. A tractor-trailer got behind him when he entered the bridge.

"I watched my speed, and my watch, and was right on time," Burchyett said. "But when I approached the pay gate, it was still up and I was told I had to pay."

His watch ran a minute faster than the toll-house clock, he discovered.

But Burchyett's play for a moment in history wasn't lost.

"I was hoping for a picture of me as the first free vehicle to cross the bridge," Burchyett said. "As it turned out, I was in the picture as the last vehicle to pay a bridge toll."

Almost lost in the fanfare were the drivers who were first to cross the "free bridge."

From Illinois, it was Harold J. McBride, driver of a Kimbel Line Truck that was behind Burchyett. Ray Blitstein of Cape Girardeau drove the first car across the bridge without a toll from the Missouri side.

Although he didn't say whether he'd be in Cape Girardeau when the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge is opened in the fall of 2003, Burchyett said he is looking forward to a free ride across the river at some point.

rowen@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 133

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