THE TALK ABOUT another bridge in Lawrence brings to mind the history of the first one built over the Kaw River to connect the two sides of the city. Ice gorges and floods caused North Lawrence to be cut off from South Lawrence as the vicious elements partially destroyed the bridge.
The first attempt made to cross the Kaw River here by means other than a boat, occurred in the territorial days of Kansas. A ferry was established in the fall of 1855 by two men who had come to Lawrence as settlers. John Baldwin and C. W. Babcock started this enterprise. The ferry was quite primitive. It was a flat boat, propelled by means of a rope stretched across the river, and aided by the current. The need for a bridge became apparent as immigrants flocked into Lawrence. It was first thought that a bridge at Lawrence could not be erected on account of "yielding banks and quick sands of which the bed of the river was supposed to be formed". But a competent engineer was hired to investigate the possibilities, and in 1859, the Lawrence Bridge Company was chartered by an act of the Territorial Legislature prior to the admission of Kansas as a state.
In 1863, work on the construction of the bridge was going along fine when Quantrill and his raiders descended on Lawrence A subcontractor and seven laborers were killed in that raid. Not only was that a catastrophe, but the stockholders of the bridge company lost their own properties and money. Finally the bridge was finished in December of 1863 and opened for travel at the beginning of 1864. That first bridge, predecessor of the present one, was described as "of the Howe Truss pattern", consisting of "five wooden spans resting on solid stone pieces, is 690 feet long and was built at the expense of $47,000". For many years this was the first and only bridge built across the Kansas River except at its mouth, and it drew an enormous amount of travel. Being a toll bridge, it was a very profitable investment.
In 1879, by a decision of the State Supreme Court, the charter of the Lawrence Bridge Company was annulled and the entire property was confiscated as property of the State. In the fall of 1872, preliminary steps were taken toward utilizing the water power. A stock company was formed early in 1873 to build a dam. While the building of the dam was in progress, a family by the name of Hutt, had arrived in Lawrence enroute from Iowa to Texas. As told by the late Edward Hutt of Lawrence, the family arrived in Lawrence on a Saturday. They always quit traveling at noon on Saturdays so that Mrs. Hutt, his mother, could get the washing done and other things ready to start out on Monday. They never traveled on Sunday. It was strictly observed as a day of rest and worship.
As the family crossed the bridge in their wagon, they saw the activity below them of the men building the dam. The father learned more men and wagons were needed. The pay was good; $1.50 a man for a 10-hour day to unload rocks, and $2.50 a day for a team and wagon to haul the rocks. The father decided to stay in Lawrence a few days longer than planned, to pick up a little money to help defray expenses for traveling. He was hired to drive his team. He took John, the oldest boy, to sit beside him. Soon the father realized he could earn $4.00 a day instead of the $2.50 by having John hold the reins on the horses while he unloaded the rocks. It became a family joke later that the young boy earned more money than the father.
With the completion of the dam, the bridge and the dam became closely tied with a series of disasters. During the month of December, 1873, an ice gorge that had formed on the river above the dam gave way and destroyed the flume on the north side, and carried with it a portion of the north end of the dam. In the spring of 1876, a heavy "freshet" took out two spans of the bridge and partially destroyed the dam. After that, things seemed to go along pretty well until the devastating flood of 1903. That time, the north span of the bridge was washed out and the Bowersock Mill was swept from its foundation and destroyed. For several days before this happened, crowds of people watched the river rising to a final 28 feet. No one was allowed to cross the bridge at the south end except to go across to help those on the other side. North Lawrence residents were evacuating their homes and crossing to the south side. It was finally realized the Bowersock Mill was going to be taken by the raging waters. It, too, was evacuated. An estimation of how soon it would go was made. They finally had it figured down to hours. As the word spread over town, hundreds of men, women and children congregated to watch its demise. Around noon a shout arose from the crowd as the mill cracked, moved and broke up. The crowd was showered with flour. The entire north span of the bridge went out that evening when it was struck by a house, and the crash was heard all over the city. The loss of the mill was estimated at $100,000.
The U. S. Army Engineers came from Leavenworth to help, and a pontoon bridge was considered. But after looking over the situation, it was judged impractical. Instead a ferry was operated just west of the Santa Fe depot. And this continued for about 24 days before the bridge was again in use.
There was another flood threat to bridge and dam in 1904 and again in 1908. Then in 1910, an ice gorge threatened the bridge, but it survived without damage. In the Journal-World of 1913, it was stated the old bridge was rapidly approaching an unsafe condition. A new bridge was to be built of reinforced concrete. January, 1917, the $225,000 present structure, built by
Douglas County citizens, was dedicated and opened. Then, in July of 1951, flood damaged the approach to the Kaw River bridge on the north side, but it was repaired soon after. Today, Lawrence has the Turnpike bridge as another means of crossing the river, should an emergency arise.
Lawrence Journal-World -- April 11, 1968