Romance of Omaha, Chapter XII

The problem of crossing the Missouri river, which in recent years has resolved itself into the problem of securing nontoll bridges up and down the great stream, has been of major moment to the people of Omaha, Nebraska and adjoining states for the last 100 years.

The trappers, fur traders and explorers, and later the early settlers, found the root of their difficulty was in crossing the river at any time and in any form. All they asked was that they get across in safety.

The "Big Muddy" was a natural barrier. While it formed a means of travel for canoe and flatboat north and south, it wound its sinuous length across the pathway of the pioneer and held up his hegira toward the gold-flecked horizons of the beckoning west.

The plodding oxen dragging the prairie schooner toward the setting sun and the 20-mule team of the daring frontier freighter alike were halted when they reached its banks.

And so it came that - when they got the chance -they hailed the unwieldy ferryboat with joy, glad of the opportunity to pay the ferryman's fee. It was a decided advance from the more precarious method of crossing in canoe, flatboat, keelboat or other contrivance. Even swimming was resorted to.

Old-time Ferryboats

Before Omaha was founded a ferryboat crossed the Missouri river between what is now Council Bluffs (then Kanesville) and what is now Omaha (then an uninhabited plateau).

The movement of the pioneers to the west had begun at that early date and some far-seeing residents of the east side of the river took advantage of the opportunity to become ferrymen.

William D. Brown, the man who is given credit for having the first vision of the future possibilities of Omaha, operated the first ferry at this point.

He had been running a ferry farther north on the Missouri. He had already expressed his belief that a great city would arise on the western bank of the river. He decided to be first in the field when the westward rush began.

He operated for a time what he called the "Lone Tree Ferry," so named because its western objective was a lone tree standing near the river bank. That the ferry did not always stop near the tree made no difference to Mr. Brown.

Steam Ferry Arrives

Other residents of Council Bluffs became interested in the possibilities of the ferry and Dr. Enos Lowe was commissioned to go south to buy a steam ferryboat. He found a boat on the Mississippi.

Loaded down with a cargo, the ferryboat arrived opposite Omaha one day in June, 1853, was unloaded and immediately put into commission. It was the first steam ferry on this part of the Missouri river.

Named the "General Marion," the boat served its purpose until 1855, when it was left high and dry on the east bank during very high water and was not used again.

The ferry company bought or built other steamboats and continued to give good service until the opening of the Union Pacific bridge in 1872.

For a time after that the ferry was used to transport passengers across the river. In the winter they crossed on the ice.

Build First Bridge

The first serious attempt to bridge the Missouri river at this point was made when work was begun on the Union Pacific bridge in the spring of 1869. It was not finished until March, 1872, and was opened that month.

Five years later the two eastern spans were wrecked by a windstorm and Omaha for a month reverted to the old ferry system of crossing the river. The "Queen of Decatur," a large flat bottomed ferryboat, was brought down from Decatur, Neb., to meet the emergency.

It was not until November 1,1888, 40 years ago, that the first passenger and vehicle bridge spanned the Missouri river.

On that date the present Douglas street bridge was opened to the public for street cars, vehicles and pedestrians.

The third bridge, that of the Illinois Central, was not completed until the early 90s.

Unbuilt Bridge

During 1892 the city of Omaha and the county of Douglas voted $750,000 to aid in construction of a bridge across the Missouri, but it was never built.

The Burlington railroad built a bridge across the Missouri at Plattsmouth and later at Nebraska City. The Northwestern spanned the river at Blair. Instead of building more bridges, other railroads contracted for the use of the Union Pacific bridge at Omaha.

One of the unusual methods of crossing the river was a pontoon bridge at Nebraska City. It was laid on pontoons that floated on the water and afforded passage for both vehicles and pedestrians. It seemed a rather shaky structure, but served well. Years afterward the Burlington railroad laid planks across the railroad bridge and opened a toll bridge. This is still in use.

Each bridge that was opened in those days was the signal for great jollification and celebration. The people of those days were so delighted at their emergence from the ferry days that they gave little heed to the question of tolls or fares. It was enough to have a bridge of any kind.

Object of Tolls

But as times changed an automobiles succeeded horse vehicles, the desire to travel farther and faster seized the people. They began to ask why they should pay to cross the rivers.

One by one the toll bridges across inland rivers in Nebraska and other states wree made free, but the Missouri, running between states, remained spanned by toll bridges.

South Dakota within the last 20 years has built five nontoll bridges across the Missouri river in that state. Missouri also has abolished its Missouri river toll bridges, except where they span the river between states as at St. Joe.

The demand for nontoll bridges has recently become so insistent that all up and down the Missouri from Kansas City to Omaha plans are under foot for the acquisition of toll bridges by the people.

More Bridges Coming

At the present time plans are being made to bridge the Missouri at Rulo, Nebraska City, Union, Plattsmouth, Blair, Decatur, Sioux City and Niobrara. Railroad bridges exist at Rulo, Nebraska City, Plattsmouth, Blair and Sioux City. A fine railroad and vehicular bridge spans the river at Yankton.

The plans of the builders of all these spans are to operate them as toll bridges until they are taken over by the state or by some city our county.

Under the bridge franchises granted by congress the bridges may be purchased at actual cost by the state or a subdivision thereof and operated as toll spans until paid for. Then they must be free.

Work was begun on the Blair bridge last fall and work is to begin on the Plattsmouth span in the spring. The other bridge projects are still in the planning stage.

Solving Problems

If all the projects go through there will be eventually 10 toll bridges between Nebraska and other states at Niobrara, Yankton, Sioux City, Decatur, Blair, Omaha, Plattsmouth, Union, Nebraska City and Rulo. In time it is proposed that they all be freed of tolls.

The problem of how to cross the Missouri without paying toll is now as acute as the pioneer problem of how to cross it other than by swimming. The pioneer solved his difficulty. The modern Nebraskan will, it is safe to say, solve his problem.

Chapter XIII
Return to Table of Contents
HistoricOmaha.com Homepage