"The Great Pontoon Drawbridge"
By Lona Lewis
The title of this View is a typical headline describing
the pontoon bridge that crossed the Missouri River
at Nebraska City. The bridge itself affected two states-
Fremont County, Iowa and Nebraska City, Nebraska.
Although it garnered great attention because it was
unique, the reality was the bridge was a response
to having limited funds to build a crossing for pedestrians
and horse drawn transportation.
Railroad bridges were spanning the Missouri River
in the late 1800s but the railroads did little to
help with horse and wagons or people crossing the
river. Congress chartered the Nebraska City Bridge
Company in the early 1870s. However, the only result
was a Burlington railroad bridge. As late as 1888,
there was no reliable way to cross the river for any
other form of transportation
Pontoon bridges had been used for centuries to ford
a river. They were usually temporary and worked best
in an area that did not have a swift current. Col.
S. N. Stewart of Philadelphia approached the Nebraska
City leaders with an affordable proposal to build
a pontoon drawbridge, provided the town subsidized
the construction. The offer was accepted. Construction
was completed by August 23, 1888. The cost of the
bridge was approximately $18,000.
Pontoons came straight out from both shores with a
'v' in the middle. The pontoon potion of the bridge
was 1,074 feet long. An additional 1,050-foot approach
spanned a channel from the Iowa side to an island
in the river where the pontoons began. The crossing
was 24.5 feet wide allowing for two pedestrian crossings
as well as a horse drawn path. The "v' area could
swing open for boats and floating ice. The span when
open was 528 feet. Local carpenters including James
Stanley, a resident of Percival, worked on the flat
boats for the pontoons. He later collected tolls.
Tolls were 50 cents for a double-team; 25 cents for
a horse and rider, round trip; 5 cents for a foot
passenger; 10 cents for a loose horse; 5 cents for
cattle and 2 cents for hogs.
If the Missouri River was a grand old river with a
steady current, the bridge may have had a long history.
As it was, the River soon created problems. Ice was
the biggest culprit. It caused pontoons to sink or
carried them away. The ice also destroyed parts of
the structure meant to be permanent. Heavy thunderstorms
in the summer caused the River to raise creating problems
and the winds tore at the structures. In the summer
of 1890, high water closed the bridge for 35 days.
The decision was to begin to look at a structure to
replace the bridge. Stewart, the bridge owner, sold
the bridge to parties in Atchison Kansas and in November
1890 floated it down the river. The end of a two-year,
three month interesting experiment in crossing the
Some of the information for this article came from
"Spans in Time: A History of Nebraska bridges"