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Look Back 250 • Bridge over Mississippi becomes populist symbol against monopoly power

Look Back 250 • Bridge over Mississippi becomes populist symbol against monopoly power


ST. LOUIS • “The Boston Tea Party was not more significant than this movement for a free bridge.”

If former judge Leo Rassieur’s rhetoric at a public rally was overdone, it fairly expressed widespread frustration in St. Louis over the local bridge monopoly at the turn of the 20th century. An association of railroad barons owned the only two bridges over the Mississippi River and charged high rates for the privilege of crossing them.

The citizen response stands today in dingy but sturdy stone and steel — a monument to populism called the MacArthur Bridge, just south of the Poplar Street Bridge.

Spanning the river had been a local obsession since before the Civil War. Completion of the Eads Bridge in 1874 was a regional triumph. Keeping it under local control was, in its own way, a greater challenge.

Local stockholders of the bridge defaulted to New York financiers and railroad kings. St. Louisans tried again, this time building the railroad-only Merchants Bridge 2.5 miles north of the Eads.

That bridge opened in 1890, but its investors were forced out by a recession three years later. The Merchants was snapped up by the Terminal Railroad Association, a combine of major railroads serving St. Louis that already controlled the Eads and the Wiggins Ferry Co. on the riverfront.

The TRRA system of tolls befitted a monopoly, with a worthy name — the “bridge arbitrary.” Working-class people resented the extra levy on Illinois coal. Businessmen resented the high freight rates.

They began pressing for a new “free” bridge. The TRRA, hoping to head off populist anger, cut rates by one-third — a move that only showed how much everyone had been fleeced. A Post-Dispatch editorial urged: “Smash the Bridge Combine.”

On June 12, 1906, voters rolled up an 8-to-1 ratio for a $3.5 million bond issue to build a Municipal Bridge, or Free Bridge, for trains and vehicles.

The most prominent opponent was Mayor Rolla Wells, a patrician industrialist. Even as the vote was announced, Wells said, “I have not yet seen an intelligent argument offered in favor of the free bridge.”

One year later, he vetoed a bill by the Municipal Assembly (forerunner of the Board of Aldermen) to locate the new bridge at the foot of Chouteau Avenue. The Assembly quickly overrode him.

“I take pleasure to pass this bill over the little rat’s head,” Asssemblyman Francis X. Hussey said.

Work began on the piers in 1909, but the project ran out of money before land approaches could be built. Voters added another $2.7 million bond issue in 1914. The street deck of the Municipal Bridge was opened to parades on Jan. 20, 1917.

But the railroads snubbed it. The city eventually charged vehicle tolls on the “free bridge.”

A few freight shuttles began in 1929, but finishing the railroad approaches required yet another bond issue and lengthy tussling between the city and TRRA. Finally, on Jan. 15, 1940, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s “Spirit of St. Louis” passenger train crossed the bridge after a ribbon-cutting ceremony, commencing regular use.

In March 1942, in the early days of World War II, the city renamed its bridge in honor of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. After the Poplar Street Bridge opened in 1967, few motorists used the MacArthur. The city closed its street deck in 1981.

In fine irony, the TRRA and St. Louis swapped their bridges in 1989 to run MetroLink across the Eads. Railroads put the old people’s bridge to heavy use.

Two leaders at opposite ends of the bridge fight

Leo Rassieur was a 17-year-old Union recruit who took part in the first bloody day of the Civil War in St. Louis. Rolla Wells was a young boy who watched the violence from his grandfather's carriage.

Forty-five years later, they were on opposing sides in the debate over a free bridge in St. Louis. Their stories help to portray St. Louis' class and economic tensions.

Rassieur was born in Germany in 1844 and moved here with his parents in 1849. He graduated from the city's first public high school (later called Central High) and joined the Union army with the outbreak of Civil War.

On May 10, 1861, he was one of Union Capt. Nathaniel Lyon's soldiers who captured the Southern-leaning Missouri militia near Olive Street and Compton Avenue. The surrender was peaceful, but 35 civilians and soldiers died in a clash between the green troops and pro-Southern (and anti-German) rioters.

Wells, then five, watched from Garrison Avenue, near the center of the battle. Rassieur ended the war as a major. He became a teacher, lawyer and city probate judge. In 1900, he was elected national chairman of the Grand Army of the Republic, the main organization of Union Civil War veterans.

Wells' father, Erastus Wells, was a bank president, streetcar-company owner and founder of the suburb of Wellston. Rolla Wells went to Princeton University, became president of a local steel foundry and, in 1901, was the pro-business candidate for mayor. 

In office, he strongly opposed the public clamor to build a new bridge. Wells, a major investor in railroads, believed the captains of commerce knew best. He called the idea dangerous folly.

Rassieur campaigned passionately for the bridge and against monopoly power. He died in 1929 at age 85 in his home at 2335 Whittemore Place, near Lafayette Park.

Wells served two terms as mayor (1901-09) and was the first governor of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank. In his memoirs in 1933, he again denounced the free-bridge movement. He died in 1944 at age 88 in his home at 25 Westmoreland Place.

Both men were buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery.

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Tim O'Neil is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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