Glad I didn’t tear down the Big Four Bridge

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Big Four Bridge

After years of delay, and with the expenditure of millions of dollars in public funds, the Big Four Bridge was finally opened to pedestrian and bicycle traffic today.  And Bob Manning was one of the first to cross the refurbished span across the Ohio River.

Bobby on Bridge.jpgReaders may recall that Manning was the first civilian to ride a bicycle across the brand-new Sherman Minton bridge to New Albany, back in August, 1962.  He was a 13-year-old paperboy back then, and his feat garnered him a front-page photograph in the old Louisville Times newspaper.  A half-century later, he petitioned Louisville’s Mayor and Indiana’s Governor for permission to ride his bike (he’s now 64, and still pedaling—but no longer delivering newspapers) across the repaired and reopened Sherman Minton.

Sadly, officials were unable to allow Manning an opportunity to repeat his bike crossing, since the Sherman Minton carries Interstate 64 traffic, and federal rules prohibit bicycles (and horse-drawn vehicles) on interstate highways.

bob manning big four.jpgBut today was a different story, since the Big Four Bridge has been specifically dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists.  Folks can now leisurely stroll or bike across the wide Ohio River, between Louisville and Jeffersonville, without having to dodge cars or inhale truck exhaust fumes.  And all of this is because I failed in my attempt to get the bridge torn down.

Readers should excuse my temporary lapse into the first-person singular, but my personal recollection of this bit of local history may prove interesting, vel non.

Back in 1970, Louisville was being run by the administration of Mayor Frank W. Burke, and I was hired to be Deputy Director of the Building and Housing Inspection Department.  One of my duties was to monitor dilapidated structures, and encourage owners to repair or demolish them.  The city had some federal grant money to defray the cost of demolishing substandard dwelling units, but usually had to resort to the threat of criminal sanctions to get businesses to remove dangerous and dilapidated commercial structures.

In late 1970, we received reports of chunks of rotting wood—railroad ties and the like—falling from the Big Four Bridge onto Interstate 64, along the Ohio riverfront.  I went out with a couple of inspectors to investigate, and we walked the entire length of the structure.  The rails had been removed, and all the brass fixtures on the firefighting hoses had been stolen for salvage value.  The folks over at the Louisville Fire Department candidly admitted to me that, if the bridge ever caught fire, they would likely be unable to stop it from burning.

Built in 1895, the single track, six-span, 2,525 ft. railroad bridge over the Ohio River got its name from the defunct Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway, which was nicknamed the "Big Four Railroad".  After the Big Four Railroad's parent company, the New York Central Railroad, was merged into the Penn Central in 1968, the bridge fell into disuse and disrepair.  I wrote several letters to the officials at Penn Central, demanding that they take steps to remedy the nuisance and safety hazard they had abandoned.  But the big shots in Philadelphia never took the time to answer.

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