Fremont County, Iowa

"The Great Pontoon Drawbridge"
By Lona Lewis

View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
Week of June 13, 2011

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 Missouri River.

Some of the information for this article came from "Spans in Time: A History of Nebraska bridges" 

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Page updated on June 22, 2023 by Karyn Techau