Editorʼs Notebook

Forty years ago this month the fate of an overhead suspension bridge first erected in Iowa probably in the prior century and moved in Nuckolls County in 1935 was sealed. On a June morning construction workers toppled the tired structure into the Republican River.

It replaced a bridge destroyed by the great 1935 flood.

At the time it was moved, the Nuckolls County Commissioners expected it would be good for 100 years. It may have been had expectations of what was needed from a bridge at the location had not changed.

By 1984, the bridge was serving the most direct route from Nebraska to Lovewell State Park. Many of those vehicles were pulling boats or campers and that created a new problem when drivers had to back off the bridge because of oncoming traffic.

Though there were a few occasions when two vehicles met on the bridge, for most drivers met on the bridge, for most drivers and vehicles it wasn’t wide enough for two lanes of traffic and one of the drivers had to back off. The bridge was elevated above the road such that drivers often could not see the approaching vehicle in time to stop before being on the bridge. One icy morning, I was called to take photos of a two vehicle accident on the bridge deck. The drivers had pulled onto the bridge before seeing that approaching vehicle. When they tried to stop, their vehicles slid into one another. The drivers were not badly hurt but the vehicles had to be towed.

Any sliding vehicles made the bridge even narrower by kinking the railings designed to keep vehicles from plunging into the river.

One summer holiday, I followed a self-propelled swather across the bridge. The piece of farm machinery was so wide it couldn’t be driven straight across the bridge. Instead the driver had to twist and turn his machine around the guard rail kinks that protruded onto the bridge.

There were occasions when drivers approached the bridge at a high rate of speed, failed to make the approach turn and went flying into the river or smacked into the bridge.

On the last morning for the bridge, an Express photographer was among the spectators who gathered to see the old bridge for the last time. At 8:40 a.m. two cranes lifted the first section and toppled it into the river where the steel was cut up and shipped off for recycling.

The bridge spans were each 235 feet in length and estimated to be 30 to 35 feet in the air. They were first though to weigh in the range of 30 to 35 tons. After they were down it was decided the weight was closer to 100 tons and that didn’t include the wood planks and steel used in the decking or the eight inches of asphalt that had been applied to the drying surface.

For safety reasons, the electrical service to Webber had to be shut off when the spans were toppled.

One of the most spectators remembered when the Highway 14 bridge went down about 55 years earlier. He said it was a much slower process. Though the bridge was sagging, traffic continued to cross it. After it went down, a floating bridge was brought in to provide a river crossing until a new bridge could be built. By 1984, the “new bridge was failing and chunks of the concrete deck were falling into the river. When I canoed the river, I always tried to minimize my time under the bridge. Construction of a new bridge to serve Highway 14 traffic was expected to start in 1985.

In 1984, a story was circulating that the Highway 14 bridge was the worst bridge in the state highway system. District Engineer Andy Necas would not confirm that but he did say it was “one of the worst.”

Though outdated, the Webber bridge at the time of its closing was still sturdy. All of the concrete used to construct the new bridge was hauled across the old bridge. The bridge floor had been replaced about 10 years earlier.

When I was a youngster, it was one of my favorite bridges. Though not a direct route between my home and Superior. I would ask my parents to take to longer route so we could cross the river on the old bridge. I wasn’t so sure of the bridge when the river was in flood stage for it vibrated as the water surged beneath it.

Donna Sibert, wife of the foreman overseeing construction of the new bridge, wanted her husband to purchase one of the old bridge spans and move it to a location near their Superior home. She thought it would be an attention-getter if placed on property they owned between their home on Dakota Street and Bloom Street. However, Lloyd didn’t agree. The old bridge was cut up for salvage.

Lloyd was a long time bridge builder, but the Webber bridge was the first one he built within walking distance of his home. I suspect young members of the Sibert family walked down Bloom Street and played in the river near the bridge.

It would have been the bridge that failed in the 1935 flood but the getaway of the robbers who held up the Security National Bank in 1934 and took Paul Schmeling, George Whitney and Helen Denny hostages hit a snag. They encountered a farmer crossing the river with farm equipment. The equipment was much smaller than today’s equipment but it was large enough to use the entire width of the bridge.

The robbers had sped out of town with guns pointed at Mrs. Denny and the male bank employees riding on the vehicle’s running boards as shields. Eyewitnesses said they were travelling so fast when they crossed the Missouri-Pacific Railroad tracks south of the intersection of Bloom and Conn streets that the became airborne. The haste wasn’t necessary because the getaway came to a halt at the north approach to the bridge. While waiting for the farmer to get off the bridge with his equipment, they released their hostages unharmed. The hostages rode back to town with Mr. and Mrs. Tom Sweet. The Sweets were farmers and had their automobile loaded with filled cream cans and egg crates they were transporting to market in Superior. Mrs. Denny rode to town sitting on Mrs. Sweet’s lap.

Some suspect the robbers may have had an accompliance living on a farm along the river. After the 1935 flood, a stole automobile they were thought to have used in another job was found hidden on the suspect’s farm.

In more recent years, I was checking on flood water and saw a group of young adults floating down the river on inner tubes. Most successfully steered their tubes under the bridge and to the bank below the bridge. But one terrified woman’s tube was wrapped around a bridge pier. I offered to lend her a life jacket and then help life her up onto the bridge or suggested she push off and let the swift flowing river take her tub under the bridge and to shore. I even offered to call the fire department for assistance. She didn’t like any of my suggestions and finally I gave up and left. I don’t know how she got out but since I didn’t hear of a drowning. I assume her companions eventually worked their way back up stream and rescued her.

The new bridge was rescued the number of wrecks and for the most part eliminated the need to wait on others crossing the bridge, but it hasn’t eliminated all the problems.

One Sunday morning, as I was returning from attending a church service, A Superior police officer suggested I take my camera and go to the Webber bridge. In general the roads were not snow packed or icy that day, but a motorist approaching from the south failed to navigate the icy turn on the south approach and his vehicle flew off the road and landed in the river upstream from the bridge. The driver didn’t expect the ice which had formed on a shaded part of the asphalt surfaced road and lost control of the vehicle. It was a cold day but I photographed rescuers wading in the ice water trying to lend assistance.

Now my plan are to assemble the pictures take 40 years ago into a slide show and post on this newspaper’s internet page for all to see. But that won’t happen until after this issue is in the mail.

 

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