Traffic gridlock on the northbound Ohio River bridge between Evansville and Henderson is nothing new. Motorists using the U.S. 41 structure have experienced slow traffic the past few weeks as crews have limited access for painting and deck repairs.
But recent research by highway officials has shown traffic was tied up when the structure opened 75 years ago this week.
When the northbound — the older of the two bridges that now span the Ohio River — was officially opened to traffic with a three-day celebration centered on July 4, 1932, records show up to 50,000 vehicles tried to cross the structure the first two days, said Ted Merryman, Kentucky Department of Highways Chief Engineer at Madisonville, Ky.
The bridges currently carry about 40,000 vehicles a day.
But the 75th anniversary of the opening of the first bridge linking Henderson and Evansville is generating a lot less hoopla than the grand opening in 1932.
To officially open the bridge to traffic, Kentucky Gov. Ruby Laffoon and Indiana Gov. Harry G. Leslie walked from each end of the span to meet in the middle to shake hands.
A boat flotilla gathered from up and down the Ohio River took nearly 40 minutes to pass beneath the bridge. About two dozen Army planes put on an air show with maneuvers above Dade Park (now Ellis Park) Race Track. A parade celebrating the history of transportation stretched for nearly 2 miles and lasted nearly two hours.
Gayle Alvis with the Kentucky State Library Archives assisted Kentucky Transportation Cabinet personnel in digging through microfilm files filled with the history of the original bridge.
"One of the first Henderson Gleaner articles we found described the celebration as, 'One of the most elaborate celebrations of its kind ever to be staged in the Middle West,'" Alvis said. "It was estimated that the celebration attracted 100,000 visitors to Henderson."
The structure was designed by Ralph Modjeski, who has been called "America's greatest bridge builder." He was involved in the construction of nearly 40 major bridges in the United States and Canada, among them Quebec Bridge over the St. Lawrence River is still the longest cantilever bridge in the world.
Some of his other major structures were the Ben Franklin Bridge at Philadelphia and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
"The first of the U.S. 41 twin bridges was built for $2.4 million. It was one of 11 new bridges built statewide at about the same time for just under $10 million," said a transportation spokesperson. "That building boom included the U.S. 60 Green River Bridge at Spottsville, Ky., that had opened just a few months earlier, as well as other major bridges along the U.S. 60 corridor. It was an amazing time of growth and economic expansion across Kentucky, and it all came down to improving transportation."
Bridge bonds issued to pay for the construction effort were paid off with tolls. Crossing between Henderson and Evansville required a 30 cent toll for passenger vehicles. It was five cents for pedestrians who strolled across a sidewalk on the bridge deck.
A three-day celebration was held in Henderson and Evansville, with Evansville paying for and hosting the bulk of the party. "After the speaking program (at Dade Park) was concluded, a squadron of 22 army airplanes led by Jimmy Doolittle, one of America's foremost stunt fliers and test pilots, flew low in formation over the park and then proceeded with other maneuvers," The Gleaner reported.
Doolittle went on to commanded the famous bombing raid on Tokyo on April 18, 1942. He led 16 bombers from an aircraft carrier, knowing the planes would have to be ditched after releasing their bombs, and that the chances of death or capture were very high. Doolittle survived the mission and was awarded the Medal of Honor and became a four-star general in his retirement.
At the time of the bridge dedication, though, he was best known for piloting the first coast-to-coast flight in 1922, for repeatedly setting world speed records, and for being the first person to take off, fly and land a plane with instruments alone. All of that meant little to local spectators, though. They just liked airplanes, which were still something of a novelty in 1932.
The bridge was originally named to honor John James Audubon, although some Hoosiers objected to any name that didn't acknowledge Evansville. In December 1966 a second bridge was opened to handle southbound traffic. Together the bridges are now known as the Bi-State Gold Star Vietnam War Memorial Bridges.
n Frank Boyett, The Gleaner staff writer, and Keith Todd, public information officer for the Kentucky Department of Highways, contributed to this story.