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Plagued by a shortage of money, the free 'people's bridge' finally opened on Jan. 20, 1917

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Look Back 140907

The St. Louis Municipal Bridge as it stood across the Mississippi River in 1912 after money ran out from the original $3.5 million bond issue, which was adopted by St. Louis voters in 1906. Additional bond issues were needed to complete the land approaches for the street deck in 1917. It took much longer to fully link the rail deck to the main lines in East St. Louis. The Municipal was the people's bridge -- the product of a populist movement to get around the railroad monopoly controlling the Eads and Merchants bridges. In 1906, they were the only two spanning the Mississippi River at St. Louis. The railroads didn't regularly use the Municipal until 1940. The city renamed it after Gen. Douglas MacArthur in March 1942, three months after America entered World War II. (Post-Dispatch)

ST. LOUIS • A century ago, an association of railroad barons owned both bridges over the Mississippi River and charged high rates for anything that crossed by train or wagon.

The toll was known as the "bridge arbitrary," and it raised the cost of food, merchandise and the sooty Illinois coal that St. Louisans burned for heat.

Ordinary citizens deeply resented the arbitrary. In saloons, ward clubs and church halls, the call arose for the city to build a "free bridge" to get around the monopoly.

In June 1906, voters approved a $3.5 million bond issue for a new bridge despite resistance from their patrician mayor, Rolla Wells, a major holder of railroad stocks. On Nov. 23, 1907, Wells vetoed a bill to build the bridge near Chouteau Avenue. Within hours, both chambers of the city's former Municipal Assembly overrode him.

"I take pleasure in voting to pass this bill over the little rat's head," shouted Assemblyman Francis X. Hussey.

Building the people's bridge, called the Municipal Bridge, never got easier. Work on the stone piers began in December 1909, but the project ran out of money without finishing the land approaches. More debate and public votes finally led to a $6.2 million bridge that was opened in grand ceremony on Jan. 20, 1917. As Mayor Henry W. Kiel opened an oversize padlock, 14-year-old Victor Koch jumped over the chain and scampered toward East St. Louis.

But the big railroads, through their Terminal Rail Road Association, kept to their Eads and Merchants bridges. Voters approved another $4 million to add more rail approaches to the Municipal Bridge. Beginning in 1929, a few switching locomotives shuttled loads across. But the standoff with the TRRA continued until Jan. 15, 1940, when the Pennsylvania Railroad's "Spirit of St. Louis" passenger train chuffed over the bridge to begin regular use. Victor Koch was a guest passenger.

By then, the bridge was no longer free. The city imposed a 10-cent toll for cars in 1932 to raise money for unemployment relief. In March 1942, three months after America entered World War II, aldermen renamed the bridge in honor of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

After the Poplar Street Bridge opened on Nov. 7, 1967, few drivers bothered with the MacArthur. The city eliminated the toll in 1973 because it didn't cover the salaries of toll-gate workers. In August 1981, with roadway and sidewalks crumbling, the city closed it to vehicles for good.

In a fine irony, the TRRA and the city swapped the Eads and MacArthur in 1989 so that MetroLink could use the Eads. Nowadays, the big railroads rumble at all hours across the sturdy monument to populism. It remains one of the busiest railroad bridges in the United States.

Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series. 

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