Remembering the Lyons-Fulton High Bridge

The Lyons-Fulton High Bridge opened in 1891 and was demolished in 1975.

On Opening Day, July 4, 1891, over 23,000 people crossed the new bridge beginning with a parade of officials, marching bands, fraternal organizations, and firemen. The procession began in Lyons, was followed by carriages, horse-drawn wagons, and citizens who walked across the bridge, toured the Fulton business area, and returned to Lyons. There was a grand celebration with flair and fanfare on the rooftop of the Northern Illinois College Building (present site of the Fulton Post Office) that evening. Fireworks were ignited from a platform erected on top of the highest span, which was 110 feet above the Mississippi River. Congress passed a bill authorizing construction of the Lyons-Fulton High Bridge (its official name) in February 1889.

The contract was awarded to the Chicago Bridge Company for $94,000 to build the iron bridge. The final cost was $100,000. The Board of Directors were C. Moeszinger; G.W. Ashton; George DeBey; C.I. Root; Thomas Leedham; J.K.P. Balch; J.A. Nattinger; Ira Stockwell; and Silas W. Gardiner. In January 1890 it was determined that the bridge would be financed by the sale of stock: Lyons $30,000 and Fulton $10,000 worth of subscriptions. Residents of Lyons also approved a 5 percent tax levy. One can understand why Lyons is listed first in the official name. As early as 1874, however, on the front page of the Fulton Journal dated January 30, 1874 an article was titled: “The Bridge Question.”

The Necessity of the Times

The question of building a new bridge between this city and Lyons has assumed a shape which demands immediate action. The immensely increased demand for transportation at this point over the river, both eastward and westward, must be yielded to, or the great share will seek other facilities. Nowhere on the Upper Mississippi can a point be found so exactly adapted for a crossing as here.

Other lengthy endorsements were published for years before the bridge question was settled. The site was chosen because at the “narrow crossing,” the distance was only a quarter mile wide. It was also evaluated to be the safest and best crossing with minimal navigation obstruction. Orlando Sprague, a local surveyor in Fulton at 76 years of age, chose Union (Ninth) Avenue for the Fulton abutment location.

The initial crossing created much excitement, but so, too, did the construction. Progress was swift and efficient (a bridge to the south, the East Clinton-Clinton Bridge, started earlier and finished later). In February 1891 pilings were built with timber 45 feet long and 5 to 12 feet thick and then pounded over 20 feet into the bedrock of the river.

On top of the pilings, cut stones from Stone City, Iowa, were placed layer by layer. The stonework at the base of the 6 piers was 48 feet long and 10 feet wide. Piers 2 and 3 from the west were twins and were on each side of the channel and they lifted the bridge to an altitude of 50 feet above the high water mark. There were 1,775 cubic yards of masonry in the piers. There were five spans between the six piers: three at 330 feet each, one span distance at 362 feet, and one span at 200 feet. The entire length was 2,617 feet including the approaches. Total construction time was nine months. These statistics are from a framed print of the bridge located in the Fulton (Martin House) Museum and donated by the Wayne Bastian Estate.

Ironwork started in March 1891. There were 30 to 50 men employed and 1,200,000 pounds of iron used. The superstructure was built on the Illinois shore in a workshop designed for this part of the project. Carloads of iron were delivered by the C & NW to the site. The pile-driver was used to lift the iron structures off the ground so that they could be assembled. While the spanning was progressing on the Illinois side, the Lyons approach, 700 feet long placed atop 500 feet of trestle-work, was completed. In May, the floor planking, which was 3 inches thick and 22 feet long, was laid.

I recall the beautiful park, narrow and attractive, at the approach level of the bridge on the Iowa side of the river. There was a paved roadway (with a concrete seawall or river wall) east and below the small park and closely parallel to the river. Often fishermen were seen there; the younger ones had their legs dangling over the wall.

Following the opening day celebration, the bridge was opened to commercial and pedestrian traffic; for a fee. The next day T.M. Gobble, who was the first to cross on Opening Day as the Mayor of Clinton, also made the first commercial trip; a delivery wagon with 2 tons of groceries delivered to the DeBey Store (northwest corner of Fourth Street and 10th Avenue). Mr. George DeBey, a director of the Bridge Company, always treasured the first fare paid: 5 cents from Mr. Gobble.

OTHER SIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE BRIDGE HISTORY

1908 — The “Great Around the World Race” cars crossed the bridge in February. The Great Race from New York to Paris included cars of many nations: American, the Thomas Flyer driven by George Schuster; German, Protos driven by Hans Koeppen; and France, Moto Bloc driven by Louis Vuitton. The American car won the race of 22,000 miles in six months.

L.A. Abbott who lived on current Highway 30 (not a paved road then) was a senior at Morrison High School. He wrote an interesting and personal account of the Race cars as they traveled by his home. For further information on this event see the two articles on the Great Auto Race written by Gary Herrity and published in the Clinton Herald on Feb. 29, 2008 and March 13, 2008 - the 100th anniversary of this historic event.

In December 1910 the 3-inch floor planking was replaced with a double layer of 2-inch planks.

1911 — Spans were lighted with kerosene lamps. After 1911, 16 60-candle power incandescent bulbs were installed.

1915-1928 — The Lincoln Highway. Called the Main Street of America, the 3,000 miles of the first transcontinental highway started at Times Square in New York City and ended in Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The Lyons-Fulton High Bridge was the major reason that the famous highway route crossed the river here. The Lincoln Highway construction and impact on the local towns it traveled through is another fascinating part of our area history, a future article, perhaps.

1917 — Iowa officially went “dry,” and traffic increased across the bridge dramatically. Jitney buses, built on Model T Fords, were pressed into service and continued to accommodate passengers crossing the bridge until 1920 when the entire nation came under the Prohibition Law. According to Wayne Bastian, Al Capone used the bridge for transporting liquor to Iowa using “rum-runners,” cars with extra heavy springs to carry the booze without suspicion.

1919 — The Army Convoy led by Lt. Dwight David Eisenhower consisted of 81 vehicles and had two purposes: to test the ability of the U.S. Army to transport vehicles across the U.S. and to determine how well troops could be moved from the Eastern to Western United States. His daily log for July 22, 1919: “Departed De Kalb, 6:15 a.mS12 mi. east of Dixon small bridge over culvert collapsed. Valve tappet roller goes to pieces in another Class B. 11:15 a.m. luncheon is served by the people of Dixon. 9 mi. west of Morrison, Mack truck towing pontoon trailer falls down under load on sandy grade and had to go to top of hill first, later towing trailer up by means of long rope. Crossed Mississippi at 4:10 p.m. Riker turtle in ditch, but was righted and proceeded under own power. One motorcycle upset, causing slight damage to machine and slight injuries to driver. Fair and warm. Road fair, but very dusty. Made 90 mi. in 10 and 3Z4 hour. Arrived Clinton, Iowa 5 p.m.” (ARMY CONVOY DAILY LOG). This is another interesting event in our area¹s history; another article, perhaps.

1930 — Steel girders and grates were laid replacing the wooden planking. The walkway remained wooden planks. A toll booth was located in each end of the bridge. There also was a fire that year with some damage. The fire was extinguished by hoses from underneath the bridge.

1954 — The Clinton Bridge Company purchased the bridge for $1,250,000.

In 1963 a fire on the pedestrian walk closed the bridge to traffic for a brief period of time.

FALLING DOWN, FALLING DOWN

At 3:40 p.m. on November 12, 1975 the Lyons-Fulton High Bridge¹s demolition began by dynamiting one span at a time. Many spectators lined the shores on both sides to watch the first span (the second span from the Illinois side; and 329 feet in length) drop. There were two billowing puffs of smoke on each end of the span; then an explosion ... and, then the “Fulton bridge is falling down; falling down; falling down.” It was memorable moment. As this writer observed the event the “London Bridge jingle was remembered.” My sons, aged 5 and 6, were also present and can recall the spectacle even today. The next span was dropped a week later.

When it closed autos were paying 20 cents and pedestrians were still only paying 5 cents (when they paid). Of the many comments made when recalling childhood and adult memories about this bridge, many people could cite ways (most often with success) how they had tried to avoid paying the nickel to walk across it.

INTERESTING PERSONAL Occurrences

Dr. Lucinda Reed, a well-known and highly respected physician, walked the entire length of the bridge one day prior to Opening Day. She was 91 years old. She also attended the celebration on July 4, 1891, on the rooftop of the College building, which was five stories tall. She watched the spectacular fireworks display from a height even higher than the bridge.

Paul Noble Snyder, son of J. C. and Hattie (Noble) Snyder and older brother of Earl C. and Dr. Byron J. Snyder, requested that his committal service be held on the highest span of the bridge. Paul had lived his early life in Fulton and graduated from Fulton High School in 1904 (the first year a school year book was published). In his obituary it was stated that “he always maintained interest in the old home town, in his Oalma mater, the old haunts about the river ...” He lived and worked in Chicago during his adult life, but prior to his death made funeral arrangements.

Courtnay Snyder Wait, a granddaughter who lives in Wisconsin, responded to the inquiry about Paul’s committal service on the bridge. “The day sounds like a comedy of errors as some funerals tend to be. Mr. Fay (Fay’s Funeral Home) who had the ashes in his care, was in an accident on the way to the bridge and the car was towed away. Everyone was gathered on the bridge on a cold/windy, April day ... waiting ... finally, Paul’s son Clark (Courtnay’s father) went off to find out what was the hold up, saw the wrecked car ... retrieved the box of ashes which were still on the front seat. The box was suppose to have opened up when it hit the water after being tossed, but it didn’t so instead of sinking, it floated down the river; both the widow and the mother were traumatized. Actually, there were two accidents with the ashes in the cars that day: the Chicago funeral director, taking the ashes from the funeral to my grandmother’s house for transport to Fulton, was in an accident on his way as well, thus getting everyone off to a late start for the drive to Fulton. Traffic was stopped on U.S. 30 while they all gathered on the bridge over the Mississippi ... waiting ... for the ashes to arrive. There were armloads of flowers tossed from the bridge after the floating box.”

Paul Snyder, a victim of multiple sclerosis, died in 1945 at the age of 57, but his ashes did not scatter as requested but floated in a box down the Mississippi River. There is a stone bearing his name in the Snyder cemetery plot, but his remains are not there.

THE JUMPS (OR LEAPS OF FAITH)

Wayne Bastian, a local historian, wrote that someone had jumped off the “High Bridge” in 1907. I could recall someone doing that in the 1950s. One phone call and this writer had the right name. Gerry Connor, a 1958 Fulton High School graduate, jumped off the “High Bridge” along with his friend Scott Abbott. The boys were 12 to 13 years old. They jumped off the next to “the highest span” 55 feet above the water. According to Gerry, Scott jumped first, without incident, and Gerry followed, also without incident. They returned to the bridge but the toll takers had observed the act and refused access to the bridge. The boys later returned with their clothes on until they were ready to take the additional plunge. Scott jumped again, but this time was unable to keep his legs together and landed with one leg extended side ways; not a good landing. Gerry decided not to jump again that day. Henceforth, the bridge toll takers were suspicious of allowing the boys back up on the bridge, but they did not attempt any further jumps.

Gerry describes the sensation “like a floating feeling.” One thing he learned (that would have been done differently if he jumped again) was that he started to hold his breath when he left the bridge and was eager to surface because of the length of time he couldn’t take a deep breath. The current took the swimmers to the shore near the former Agrico Company on South Fourth Street. Swimming in the Mississippi River was a popular pastime for local teens throughout the history of Fulton and many lost their lives. These Fulton boys swam in the river frequently and would start at the Considine Quarry site (Heritage Canyon) and the current would take them to the shore near a dump site on the Lyons side south of the Bridge.

Many people have personal remembrances of the Lyons-Fulton High Bridge. It is appropriate that the word High is included in its official name. People near and from afar described it that way. Wayne Bastian writes about how many area residents and visitors/travelers staying at the Tourist Camp north of the Fulton approach would stroll up on the bridge day and night and enjoy looking at the Mississippi River and watching barges and steamboats (calliopes playing) plying up and down the river. Ferries continued to service passengers from Lyons to Fulton and East Lynne even after the high bridge was built, but once automobiles came into common usage, ferry services were no longer in demand.

And for many of us, it became a rite of passage when we were allowed to walk the bridge to Lyons to buy our white-buck shoes or go to the movie theater. Will anyone, 100 years from now, write about the history of the current (mundanely called) north bridge?

Sources: Wayne Bastian articles; Fulton Journals; Fulton (Martin House) Museum Resource Room; Gary Herrity and Everett Streit in the Clinton Herald; Courtnay Wait; Illinois Department of Transportation Web site; Larry Johnson; and Gerry Connor.

Barbara Mask is a Fulton, Illinois, native and a member of the Fulton Historical Society.