for a new Ohio River Bridge
at Milton-Madison prompts
nostalgic look at existing one
(June 2001) It was a warm summer
night in 1926, and Mary Gladys Wood anxiously awaited
the return of her husband, Tom, from the city council
meeting. When Tom did appear, he wore an expression of
disappointment and heartache.
Mary Gladys knew immediately that something
was wrong. The first words he spoke that evening were,
Carrollton has lost our bridge.
About a year and a half later, another city council meeting
took place further west in Madison, Ind. E.M. Elliott,
representing the Illinois construction company, E.M. Elliott
& Associates, again proposed building a bridge across
the Ohio River. Only this time, the bridge would connect
the river towns of Madison, Ind., and Milton, Ky.
This time, the idea caught on. A few years later, on Dec.
20, 1929, the Ohio River Bridge opened to the public amid
much celebration and fanfare. Now, nearly a lifetime later,
talk of a new bridge is under way.
Recently, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet proposed
building a new bridge to replace the current one. A study
released in 1995 cited three options, and last year, state
officials chose to build a future bridge just east of
the current one.
A meeting held in Madison in late April to present the
long-range plans to Indiana officials rekindled emotions
on both sides of the river, where homes and businesses
are likely to be affected. Nothing has been finalized
yet. Whatever does happen isnt likely to take place
for another decade. Nothing has been decided about the
future of the existing bridge once its replacement is
Such talk of a new bridge generates fond memories about
the old one. While narrow and practically obsolete by
todays standards, the current bridge continues to
service motorists, truckers and commuters who depend on
it for their livelihoods. It also aids in tourism for
And as many learned during a partial closure of the bridge
in 1997 for upgrades and repaving, few in this area could
imagine what life would be like without it.
bridge that never was
Initially, there was talk of a bridge connecting
Carrollton, Ky., to Lamb, Ind. According to the 94-year-old
Wood, the bridge would have come into Carrollton at the
site of present-day Point Park. Back in 1926, Woods
husband, Tom, now deceased, was extremely active in trying
to get the bridge in Carrollton.
He was so enthused Carrollton would get it,
Wood recalled. Surveyors came in and said it was
an ideal space for a bridge.
Newspaper accounts of 1927 cited Carrollton as a
logical point for a bridge between Cincinnati and Louisville
that would be of inestimable benefit to Madison.
There were, of course, opponents to a bridge there. Ferry
boat owners around Carrollton and neighboring Ghent, Ky.,
knew the presence of a more stationary, around-the-clock
way of crossing the river would hurt their business.
To protect their interests, one major Ferry boat owner
successfully advocated moving the bridge farther down
river to Madison. Wood declined to disclose the name of
the Ferry owner or any other officials involved to protect
the anonymity of their descendants. She did, however,
recall the disappointment of many Carroll Countians when
they heard the news.
I dont believe there was a citizen in town
who didnt go to bed crying that night, she
said. We were so disappointed and heartbroken. We
sort of resented it for a while.
down the river
Serious discussions about building a bridge
at Madison did not begin until almost a year after the
plan for the Carrollton bridge collapsed. E.M. Elliots
company purchased the land on which the bridge sat from
the local ferry company that had previously owned it.
The bridge would be paid for by toll fees. A toll collection
shelter was to be built on the Madison side of the river.
The cost of the entire project was to be between $1.5
million and $2 million. Starting funds were provided by
a New York bridge building company, J.G. White & Co.,
to be repaid by toll fees.
Following the Nov. 19, 1927, city council meeting at which
the bridge plan was proposed, engineers from Elliots
company conducted a preliminary survey on Nov. 23 to check
base lines and statistics on the river stages that had
been reported over the last 50 years.
Later that month, the franchise to build the bridge was
granted, and on Dec. 20, U.S. Rep. Harry E. Canfield of
Batesville introduced a bill to Congress granting the
authority for the bridge to be built. It was introduced
and successfully passed by the Senate on Jan. 19 of the
next year. Two weeks later, legislation was passed to
begin the drilling for the location of the piers.
It was not until September 1928 when the first shovel
of dirt was lifted by then-Madison Mayor Marcus R. Sulzer
and Bedford, Ky., attorney Henry C. Black.
From this point, the construction process carried on for
another year. Many still living in the area recall witnessing
the entire construction process. Leona McCandless, 84,
lived near the bridge along the river when construction
was in progress. Her father, Leonard Miles, was later
a toll collector on the bridge.
I had a direct view of it, I was so close,
recalled McCandless, who lives in Milton. They began
building it from both sides, and I remember being so excited
when the two sides met and they put the ending piece up.
The construction process consisted of the building of
the piers by workers called sandhogs. The
Vang Construction Co. poured the concrete. Then the steel
was lifted by cranes and assembled from the outside toward
the one last link in the middle.
Despite the excitement of area residents, building the
bridge was dangerous work. One sandhog, Earl Kelley, 34,
fell into one of the pier chambers, or cassions,
on Feb. 7, 1929, when he and other workers were pouring
concrete. The device being used to pour the concrete couldnt
be stopped in time to save Kelley. His body is still buried
in the pier closest to the Madison side.
It was the talk of the town for days, said
Reva Webster, 86, whose late father, Leonard Harmon, was
a night watchman for the bridge during its construction.
Everybody was shocked because nothing like that
had ever happened in a small town like this, she
Webster, a Milton native who resides in Madison, remembered
hearing from her father of another tragedy related to
the bridge. As a night watchman, his job involved tending
to the lanterns that hung from the steel frame and provided
illumination for passing barges.
To check the lanterns, he had to walk on wooden beams
that connected the steel structure before the concrete
floor had been poured. Harmon was on duty one night in
1929 when a fire raged through downtown Milton, destroying
almost the entire town.
Flames began to lick the boards, and he constantly but
successfully doused the boards with buckets of water,
preventing the fire from spreading to the bridge work.
Because the bridge was not complete, Madisons No.
3 Fire Department truck had to take the Trimble ferry
across the river to put out the fire.
Despite such obstacles, though, the bridge was eventually
built, and by December 1929, it was ready to be open for
historic day in 1929
Many still living in the area may remember
Dec. 20, 1929, as an extremely cold day.
Even though it was really cold, a lot of people
still showed up, and everyone was going over (the bridge),
recalled Madison native John Burkhardt, now 100 years
old but was 28 at the time. About all of Madison
went across that bridge.
The days festivities began at 11 a.m. with Indiana
and Kentucky officials meeting at the center of the bridge
to symbolize the new connection of the two states. The
Kentucky officials were led by the states Lieut.
Gov. James Breathitt, Jr. He was accompanied by the Ormsby
Village band of Louisville. It played My Old Kentucky
The Indiana officials were led by Gov. Harry G. Leslie
and the Franklin Masonic Band, which responded to the
Kentucky anthem with the popular Indiana tune, On
the Banks of the Wabash.
It was so cold, the trumpet players mouthpiece
froze to his lips, said Madisons Perin Scott,
82. Scotts older brother played in the band.
The two states leaders then took turns giving dedication
addresses. They were followed by a ribbon cutting, which
was conducted ceremoniously by the Queen of the
Bridge, Marguerite Pecar Bray of Milton, Ky.
The Queen of the Bridge pageant had been open to any young
girl in the area. Contestantss pictures had been
featured on boxes and placed in the store windows of each
Votes for the contestants were placed in their respective
When the ribbon was cut, the first person to speed across
the bridge was an 11-year-old on his bicycle. The first
vehicle to cross was a Greyhound bus.
The participation and attendance that day came not only
from Madison and Milton, but also from the neighboring
Kentucky communities of Bedford and Carrollton, and the
Indiana communities of North Vernon, Scottsburg, Versailles
and Vevay. A large parade was held after the initial crossing,
and it was said to have been the largest ever held in
Southern Indiana up to that time. The different towns
and businesses sported representative floats, some which
had queen candidates on them.
We couldnt look very glamorous because we
had to be so wrapped up, since it was so cold, recalled
Webster, who was among the queen candidates.
The day was capped by a surprise visit by 10 airplanes
from Indianapolis that circled Madison in a congratulatory
manner and dropping 100,000 leaflets with a printed greeting
from the capital city.
above the Ohio
When it first opened, it cost a nickel to
walk the bridge one way and 45 cents to drive across.
Area residents began to feel the impact immediately.
Howard Jones, 88, spent 38 years working for the Kroger
Co. meat department and saw a dramatic increase in business.
I know it made a big difference for traffic in the
store, he said. I think a lot of it was probably
people coming over from Kentucky. I felt like the bridge
was well accepted. It brought a lot of Kentucky people
over to trade and visit.
Though its structure has pretty much remained the same,
the Ohio River Bridge has experienced some changes over
The first significant change occurred on Dec. 10, 1937,
when the bridge changed ownership. The Kentucky Department
of Highways bought it from E.M. Elliot and Associates,
making it a state entity.
According to a 1947 publication, the Department of Highways
financed the purchase by issuing Commonwealth of Kentucky
Bridge Revenue Bonds. However, tolls were still collected
in order to maintain the bridge.
The toll shelter on the Madison side collected the fee
of 45 cents.
Scott, whose father operated a grocery called Elmer E.
Scott & Co., remembers his father commenting on the
tolls. My fathers trucks were carrying grocery
products to retailers every day. My father often jokingly
said, I feel like I own a part of that bridge.
Scott also recalled his wedding day when every car in
a caravan to his reception in Kentucky had to stop and
pay a toll to cross the bridge.
But the tolls did not last forever. The bridge was freed
on Nov. 1, 1947, with a dedication ceremony full of speeches,
music and food.
I remember they made burgoo, and everyone wanted
a piece of it, said McCandless. That was down
at Kiwanis Park that day. There were 1,000 people there
for the actual freeing of the bridge. The fact it was
freed was a major event. It was like finding gold at the
end of the rainbow. There was a lot more traffic immediately.
The toll-free traffic has continued across the bridge
to this day. Even though state officials say the bridge
is too narrow by todays traffic standards, the people
of that earlier day were impressed with its dimensions.
It was so huge in those days. We thought it was
wide, Wood said, laughing. It was truly a
sight to see, though. It still is a great bridge with
such a pretty view.