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Behind the big themes, celebrated figures, and dry dates of history are the interesting stories of life in the past and ordinary people. Southeast Missouri has a varied and rich history that you often don’t hear about in history classes. Join Bill Eddleman of the State Historical Society of Missouri to hear about these stories with “Tales from Days Gone By.” Listen in on the second and fourth Thursday of the month during Morning Edition (7:45 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4:44 p.m.)

A Marvel in its Day: The 1898 Current River Bridge in Doniphan

Remnants of the supports of the 1898 to the left of the 1926 bridge over Current River at Doniphan.
Library of Congress, Historic American Engineering Record, Missouri Department of Transportation photo, ca. 1990.
Remnants of the supports of the 1898 to the left of the 1926 bridge over Current River at Doniphan.

Doniphan in Ripley County lies where a territorial road from Potosi, Missouri to Little Rock, Arkansas, forded Current River. Prior to and during the Civil War, travelers crossed the river at a nearby ford, a difficult crossing during high water. The town suffered during the Civil War and Union troops burned much of it. After the war, a rebuilding spurt included establishment of the town’s first ferry in 1867 at a site about a half mile south of the present-day bridge.

The St. Louis, Iron Mountain, and Southern railroad built a branch line from Neelyville to Doniphan in 1883. This line opened the region’s vast virgin forests to cutting for a country demanding wood for construction. Timber cutters floated rafts of logs cut in the areas upstream down the river, then loaded them on rail cars or sent them to one of the numerous mills in the area. The area then had a great need for a faster and easier way to cross the river.

A petition circulated in early 1898 to secure public subscriptions for the purpose of building a bridge. Eventually the campaign raised $10,000—half from donations and half from revenue bonds. The bridge was one of several efforts touted by a promotional piece in the March 18, 1898 issue of the Doniphan Democrat. It stated, “Our town is now taking a new life and vigor… Good substantial brick buildings are taking the place of the once old frame shacks, improvement is abroad on every hand; the streets are being put on grade, the shrill whistle of the factory and mill mingle with the din of the saw and hammer… We will have a new court house and jail soon, and if proper effort is made a bridge across Current River can be easily secured.”

St. Louis Bridge and Iron Company won the bid for the bridge on June 14, 1898, for $7,870. Surveys determined the best site for the bridge was just north of the site of the present-day Highway 160 bridge. Construction proceeded rapidly, thanks to access by rail. In fact, the Iron Mountain Railroad Co. even subscribed $800 toward completing the bridge. By mid-January 1899, the bridge was nearing completion.

The completed bridge was 1,647 feet long—the longest span covering 225 feet. It consisted of two pin-connected 12-panel Pratt trusses, or camelbacks, and a floor of wooden planks. Six steel tubes filled with concrete supported the structure. A 1,097-foot wooden trestlework extended east toward Doniphan.

The bridge proved to be sturdy, surviving a flood crest of 26.8 feet on March 1, 1901. This record flood remained unsurpassed until the crest of 33.1 feet on May 1, 2017.

When the county built the bridge, local foot, horse, and wagon traffic prevailed. Over the next 25 years automobiles came into general use and people traveled from greater distances. Automobiles came to the area in 1915 with the opening of a Ford dealership in Doniphan. Traffic became heavier and hundreds of wagons, trucks, cars and pedestrians crossed the bridge daily. The wooden approaches built on pilings had to be rebuilt repeatedly, and the load limit was reduced to four tons. The State Highway Department received jurisdiction over all bridges where state roads crossed, and proposed building concrete approaches. The old bridge had outlived its usefulness, and construction on a steel and concrete replacement began in 1926. Construction on the replacement concluded in 1928. For years the remnants of the old bridge stood north of the new bridge to mark a marvel of a vanished time.

Bill Eddleman was born in Cape Girardeau, and is an 8th-generation Cape Countian. His first Missouri ancestor came to the state in 1802. He attended SEMO for two years before transferring to the University of Missouri to study Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. He stayed at Mizzou to earn a master of science in Fisheries and Wildlife, and continued studies in Wildlife Ecology at Oklahoma State University.