By AMANDA BEAM
NEW ALBANY —
Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com
Sometimes bridges might not seem like progress to the average Hoosier. Just ask anyone who had to travel over to Louisville when the Sherman Minton was shut down for nearly five months not so long ago.
But in the 1800s, local folks had a much longer commute when trying to cross the Ohio River. Slow ferry boats did scurry back and forth between New Albany and Louisville. With the advent of the railroad, something bigger, stronger and faster needed to be built to not only connect the Kentucky coal fields to the growing Chicago markets, but to unite the people of these two growing cities as well.
What was needed was a bridge, the Kentucky and Indiana Bridge to be exact.
Completed in 1886 at a cost of $1 million, the K & I didn’t have the honor of being the first bridge to connect Southern Indiana to Louisville. According to a December, 2010 article on Trainsweb by John E. Hartline, the 14th Street Bridge had been constructed in Jeffersonville more than 15 years earlier. Citing city expansion and the high cost of sending their goods all the way through Pennsylvania, New Albany businessmen wanted their own gateway to the Bluegrass State and beyond.
In 1881, supporters of the bridge got just that. A cornerstone was placed where the monumental passage would be built. In the 2001 book “The Encyclopedia of Louisville” edited by John Kleiber, the author noted major construction wouldn’t get officially started until 1883 due to financial difficulties. Bridges, it seems, always have had a hard time getting started and finished.
When completed, the K & I brought some firsts to the area. A road crossing was added, the only one around at the time to connect Southern Indiana with Louisville. Not until 1929 with the construction of the Clark Memorial Bridge did another car overpass exist. Based on the honor system, tolls were charged to use the road section of the bridge.
“On this end of the bridge, you’d put a quarter in and the quarter would let you go across,” said local historian and retired Scribner Middle School teacher Vic Megenity. “But it was on the honor system. When you dropped a quarter in, a green light would come on. But people soon found out that if you didn’t drop a quarter in and the red light stayed on, you could still go.”
Yellow commuter cars also sped back and forth over the bridge increasing visitors to both areas exponentially. Called the Daisy Line due to the small train’s flower-like colors, the rail system was one of the first in America to be converted from steam to electric. Historian Sherman Cahal said on his website bridgestunnels.com that by 1906, “the service was handling 3,425 passengers a day, or 1,250,000 a year.” Streetcars would continue to run across the bridge, or its successor, until 1948.
Only 20 years later, the first K & I Bridge that linked Portland and New Albany would prove obsolete. Now made of weightier materials, trains became too heavy to cross the tracks.
“The first one was built in the 1880s and it worked well. But by 1911 and 12 it couldn’t hold the weight limits of the heavier trains and the cargo that they were hauling so they decided to replace it,” Megenity said. “They built it right next to the other one. From what I understand, the workers could stand on one and step right over and work on the other one which made sense in a lot of ways.”
In 1912, a new sturdier bridge was constructed next to the old one at a cost of $2 million. Until an overweight dump truck partially sagged through a wooden slat in 1979, the crossing remained opened to both local traffic and railways.
“I drove across the K & I bridge and it was a funny experience because it’s got metal grating and you can look out and see the river going right under you. It’s really quite spooky. The faster you go, the bigger the hum. It starts humming louder and louder,” Megenity said.
Since the dump truck incident, the bridge remains closed to pedestrian and car traffic. But local governments and other organizations still petition to have the stretch resurrected. Earlier in the month, Valerie Chinn at WDRB news reported that the Louisville Metro Council passed a resolution in support of reopening the stretch of bridge that was previously used for cars. But problems still persist before a grand reopening will occur.
“Norfolk Southern, which owns the bridge, tells WDRB it cannot agree to opening it to pedestrian and bicycle traffic because of safety, liability, and security concerns. It still uses the bridge for trains,” Chinn said in the online article.