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.
Readers 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.
But 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.
Frustrated, I convened an administrative hearing at City Hall, giving notice to Penn Central to show cause why the structure should not be condemned as a hazard to public safety. When no one from the mammoth railroad company appeared at the hearing, I ordered it condemned and demolished . David vs. Goliath.
The problem, of course, was that my agency didn’t have anywhere near the amount of money it would have cost to demolish the bridge. One contractor proposed to cut it apart with explosives; but even after the salvage value of the steel superstructure, we were several million dollars short of being able to pay for it.
Then I happened to read an article in the Wall Street Journal, indicating that Penn Central had filed for Chapter-11 bankruptcy protection in federal court. On a whim, I wrote a stern letter to the Chief Judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Philadelphia, complaining about the lack of cooperation the sovereign City of Louisville was receiving from Penn Central executives. Then all hell broke loose.
The Bankruptcy Judge was apparently a pretty tough customer, and he came down hard on the folks at Penn Central. Within a week, I was receiving conciliatory telephone calls from Philadelphia lawyers and the suits at Penn Central headquarters. All of a sudden, they were simply overflowing with cooperation.
The lawyers did outsmart me on one score, however. The bridge itself is located over the Ohio River, and at the time, the Commonwealth of Kentucky extended to the Indiana shore of the river, but the City of Louisville stopped at the Kentucky shoreline. So, in those pre-Metro-merger days, my condemnation jurisdiction was limited to the Southern approaches to the bridge; the structure itself was located in Jefferson County.
The County building inspection department was run by the Republicans back then, and they were advised that they didn’t have the authority to condemn the bridge. The U.S. Corps of Engineers also demurred, saying that the bridge was not a navigational hazard, so long as lights could be maintained on each support pier. So Penn Central simply demolished the rotting wooden approaches within the city limits, and left the bridge itself intact, abandoned. (Later, Indiana authorities forced them to tear down the Northern approaches to the bridge.)
During the 1970s and 1980s, local radio station WLRS-102 FM lit up the Big Four Bridge as part of their "Bridge the Gap" Christmas promotion, which was used as a fund raiser for needy local families. The bridge caught fire on at least four occasions; in 1987 both the Jeffersonville and Louisville Fire Departments fought eight hours to put out the blaze. On May 7, 2008 the bridge caught fire again, and a boat from the Harrods Creek Fire Department was used to put out the fire, as Louisville's fire boat did not have a hose which could reach the blaze upon the bridge. It took two and a half hours to control the fire.
On February 15, 2011, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels announced the two states, along with the City of Jeffersonville, would allocate $22 million in funding to complete the Big Four Bridge – creating a pedestrian and bicycle path to link Louisville and Jeffersonville. The agreement turned the unused, rusting hulk into a new pathway, providing connections from Louisville’s Waterfront Park to downtown Jeffersonville.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said at the time. “The Big Four will not only link both sides of the Ohio River, it helps bridge our communities together. We are one city, one community and one family, as I said in my inaugural address. Let me add a fourth element: We are one region. This project is proof of that.”
So today, looking at this marvelous addition to Louisville’s world-class parks system, I have to admit that I am glad that my efforts to tear the bridge down, back in 1971, came to naught. My failure led inexorably to today’s success.
By the way, back when I was fighting to demolish the Big Four, I had a clever and hard-working assistant over at City Hall, by the name of Bob Manning. Same guy who rode his bike across the bridge today. Small world. (But I’d hate to have to paint it.)
Learn more: The Big Four Bridge