A Bridge Too Old

by Norman V. Kelly
There is a lady who resides with her many friends at Buehler Home who is a living historian with a great memory. She told me about her childhood trips to the Upper Free Bridge. After a bus ride and a streetcar ride, they found themselves at the entrance to the old bridge. They loved walking across that rickety old bridge which was just the beginning of the long walk to her grandparent’s farm. She asked me to write about this bridge and others as well but space restraints will limit how many of them I can mention in this piece.

It was way back on March 3, 1882 that an article appeared in the Peoria Transcript encouraging the people of Peoria, Illinois to demand the powers that be to build a new and free bridge across the Illinois River. The need was obvious, especially to the farmers in the surrounding cities and counties, including Eureka, Pekin, Metamora and many others. By 1882 Peoria Illinois, beginning before the Civil War, was dubbed The Alcohol Capital of the World, and all the products essential to making whiskey needed to make their way to Peoria, Illinois. The benefits of such a bridge would serve so many people that the ground swell to build the bridge grew. Of course, that meant politicians and the race was on. The financing was finally put in place and in 1888 the Milwaukee Bridge Company began to build the bridge at the foot of Lorenz Avenue. By the end of 1889 the dedication ceremonies were held and thousands of local folks came to walk across the new Upper Free Bridge. It had a historical life, one of woes to the local folks mainly because it seemed to be ‘out of order’ an awful lot. It had a swing apparatus to allow the boats to pass and likely as not it was jammed quite often. In fact Shirley told me the day she and her friends got to the bridge they were unable to cross it. At least eight, perhaps more times than that, barge traffic slammed into the bridge; each collision taking its toll. Every collision was newsworthy and the Peoria Mayor always named a man to go after the culprits that owned the barges seeking damage money from them. The truth is the historical records show that the City Of Peoria only collected a total of five thousand dollars from all those collision. Of course, many of the damages to the base of the bridge were never repaired, and over the years the bridge became more and more unstable. During WW11 the War Department condemned the bridge as a river hazard. However our mayors, especially Woodruff stalled them as long as they could because a new bridge was planned, but the steel needed was diverted to the war effort and so the stalemate continued. So even though the bridge was condemned in 1942 it was not demolished until 1946. Folks in Peoria were stunned to see how fast the bridge disappeared. The crew began demolishing it on a Friday June 17, 1946 and by Monday very little was left of the old bridge. Some were saddened… others happy to see the “The North side Nightmare” gone. It had served a vital link to the City of Peoria and the local counties for many years. Sights were now set on a project called the Harvard Street Bridge.

Upper Free Bridge Traffic

Upper Free Bridge Traffic

Peoria joined with The Village of Averyville to build a ‘Draw Span’ bridge in 1906 but it was not very successful.
There was a bridge called the Lower Free Cole Bridge but this one was very unstable. Every time the river rose, and it did often, the bridge spans came loose and floated down the river. Folks around here could never understand why on those old bridges they allowed the large planks to simply lay there unattached. The newspapers are full of comments from folks that drove their horse and buggies across them in utter fear of not reaching the other side. On April 11, 1909 Peoria had another bridge; this one was constructed of concrete and steel arches and appeared to be as strong as engineers of the day could build it. It took three years to construct and cost the locals just over $222,000. This bridge replaced the dilapidated bridge the locals called “Old Toothpick” built in 1848 However on May 1, 1909, the river was running very high and began to nip at the base of the bridge. Suddenly, there was a mighty roar and section by section the new pride of the city fell into the roaring river.

During April 1913, another bridge, called The Franklin Street Bridge was dedicated bringing folks from far and wide to cheer and be among the first to walk across the bridge. Mayor Woodruff, who would become Peoria’s Mayor eleven times, rode in a Peoria made Glide automobile across the bridge to mighty cheers. The Cedar Street Bridge was a super structure built with cooperation from the Sate of Illinois and opened on a cold, blustery January 6, 1933. What was wonderful about 1933 other than the massive bridge was the end of Prohibition. Peoria was on the rise once again.
Editor’s Note: Norm is a true crime writer and Peoria historical writer. norman.kelly@sbcglobal.net