Crash on the Bridge

Crossing the bridge was a rite of passage

Crossing the Mississippi River Traffic Bridge was a rite of passage when you first got your driver’s license. No bridge in the world ever felt higher, longer or narrower. It didn’t just LOOK narrow, it WAS narrow. It was common to see splintered reflective glass on the deck from when 18-wheelers slapped mirrors.

All I know about this wreck was that the negative sleeve was slugged Don Call Wreck 1966. I’m assuming that one of the folks in the pictures is Don Call, but I don’t know that for sure. Since I didn’t know the month, I didn’t bother to try to find it in The Missourian.

Safety belts weren’t common

You can tell that this was taken in the era before seat belt usage became common. The windshield has the characteristic dimple caused by someone’s head bouncing off it.

Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge no challenge

On my last trip to Cape before the bridge was torn down, I planned to ride my bicycle across it. I figured if I did it on a Sunday morning, traffic would be light enough that it wouldn’t be a factor. When I drove across it, though, I didn’t like the looks of the expansion joints. Some of them had a wide gap that would swallow up a bike tire and some of the others were sticking up like jagged teeth.

I wasn’t sure which would be a worse fate: to be doing 20 or 25 miles an hour on the downhill stretch and have your front tire eaten by a gap, which would launch you over the bars and into the river or to blow a tire and have to carry your bike all the way across the bridge with traffic backing up behind you.

I wonder what kids will do for a challenge these days? The SHOULDER on the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge is almost as wide as the traffic lane on the old bridge.

I opted not to do the ride.


So many readers left comments about the bridge that I did a follow-up story on the last days of the bridge in October 2004.

30 Replies to “Crash on the Bridge”

  1. I remember the first time I drove across the old bridge. I had my license about a month, and I went just so I could say I’d done it. I was driving a 1954 ford with a standard transmission. The trip heading east wasn’t bad, but I met two 18-wheelers in the middle of the bridge going the opposite direction on the way back.

    I don’t know how wide that bridge was, but it couldn’t have been more than 10 inches wider than my car and a truck. I was terrified and all but stopped in the middle of the bridge until the trucks passed. I’m still surprised that I didn’t kill the engine, because I was going about 4 mph in 2nd gear.

    I lived to tell the story and had bragging rights with family and friends… at least until the next person mustered enough courage to make the trip.

  2. My brother Charlie and I worked for many years at Metro News preparing the St Louis papers for delivery. They had the cars with no doors on them, that was always fun in the winter. On Sunday mornings we had to go across the bridge to the old Thunderbird night club to pick up the Chicago papers. When I was 14/15 Charlie let me drive across the bridge one Sunday morning after I had pestered him to death to let me drive. I have always been on the short size, still am and I had to look through the steering wheel to see out the front window. Probably looked like the car where no one was driving it. All I can remember was him telling me to get over as I was as close to the guardrail as you could get. Think I scared him pretty good and also myself. I never have liked going across any bridge after that.

  3. Does anyone remember the big celebration downtown on the riverfront when the bridge became free? Many of us walked across the bridge that day.

  4. It was before I was in third grade and we lived in Paducah, Kentucky. From time to time we would visit in Cape Girardeau. I remember crossing the bridge when they still charged toll.

  5. Yes, Sally, I can remember the fireworks on barges out on the river and big sparkler “pinwheels” on the bridge when it became “free”. The levee was crowded that night!

  6. I lived close to the old bridge and 3 or 4 of us guys would ride our bikes or walk across the bridge several times. The bad part was when two big trucks would pass each other right where we were standing. Man did u hug that railing tight. We would ride over to il. looking for soda bottles for extry spending Money. The bridge was not falling apart at that time but it had a good vibration with all the movement. It was a good eye view of the boat traffic up and down the river. there was a iron support on the mo. side next to the railroad tracks that was part of the bridge. we would go up that and watch the trains pass right under us. Remember some of the silly stuff we would do and now we wonder why.

  7. That was the bridge that Ronnie had his almost fatal accident in September 23, 1992. He was driving a semi truck and met an oncoming semi and their mirrors hit causing a large piece to cut his cardiod artery. He manage to complete his trip across the bridge and stop at a gas station, parked the truck and turn it off. He climbed down and went into the station and a young nurse from St.Francis helped him. She told them she needed rags to stop the bleeding and to call 911. She saved his life. But Ronnie wes never the same. Evenguily he got cancer and died nov.97. That old Mississippi bridge changed my life forever.

  8. That was the bridge that Ronnie had his almost fatal accident in September 23, 1992. He was driving a semi truck and met an oncoming semi and their mirrors hit causing a large piece to cut his cardiod artery. He manage to complete his trip across the bridge and stop at a gas station, parked the truck and turn it off. He climbed down and went into the station and a young nurse from St.Francis helped him. She told them she needed rags to stop the bleeding and to call 911. She saved his life. But Ronnie was never the same. Evenguily he got cancer and died nov.97. That old Mississippi bridge changed my life forever.

  9. Begging the question of why the bouncers at the Purple Crackle hand out ‘go cups’ to patrons as they stumbled out the door at 3 and most were heading West. Of course, I’ve only heard about it.

  10. Hey stop complaining it was not a great bridge but it was the only bridge we had to cross into illinois. i took driver’s ed with coach pug russell, we crossed that bridge plenty. it scared the living stuff out of tweo other girls that were in the driving group. i just got used to it. my grandfather had me schlep him over the West frankfort to see his family.My approach to the old bridge was just close your eyes and charge.

  11. I lived close to the bridge in the earily years. The brdge was in better shape then. 3 or 4 of my buddies road our bikes and some times walk across the bridge to collect soda bottles for extra spending money. When we walk it seems like the only time two big trucks would pass each other was right where we were standing. We would hug that railing real tight and the vibration of those trucks was something else. We also had a good view of the tug boats going up and down the river. There were two supports on the missouri side going up to the bottom side of the bridge next to the railroad tracks that we would climb and watch the trains pass below us. The time is now and you wounder why we would do some of these crazy things.

  12. later I drove a school bus across the bridge a # of times. When taking the test to drive a school bus one of the things to do was to cross the old bridge to received your permit. I ask the trainer if we can do that part later when the new bridge was built. That was about 10 years later. Since the incident of the truck driver, with the glass, the school busses had to raise all windows when crossing the bridge. It did’nt take long for the heat to build up in the bus until you got off the bridge. It was a good safety call.

  13. I heard that one of my classmates riding with Coach Russell for driver’s ed hit a dog on the bridge, unable to avoid it on the narrow pavement.
    Our fourth grade teacher at campus school, Mrs. Ragsdale, was in an accident on the bridge and missed a month or so from school.

  14. I was terrified to be in any vehicle going across that bridge and in turn made me scared of all bridges. Would relate the story about my first time driving across it but the statute of limitations might still be in effect!

  15. My brother Charlie and I worked for Metro News preparing the St Louis papers for delivery when we were young. The cars that were used did not have any doors on them and that made working in the winter a lot of fun, summer wasn’t to bad. We would have to go across the bridge every Sunday morning to the Thunderbird night club to pick up the Chicago papers that were left there. When I was 14/15 and after a lot of begging Charlie let me drive the car over to Illinois to pick up the papers. All I can remember was him telling me to get over to the left, I was hugging the right rail pretty close apparently. It did not help that I was so short I could only see through the steering wheel and not over it. I am sure it looked like no one was driving the car. At least it was early in the morning and there was not a lot of traffic so that was good for the other motorist. I grew a little since then and can see over the wheel now but as I get older I will probably start shrinking.

  16. Almost immediately after the last toll was collected at 5:30 AM, June 29, 1957, my older brother, Ray, was the first driver to cross from Cape into IL on the free bridge. Raymond left the house at “O dark 30” in his ’50 Ford Coupe to pick up his buddy, Gene Watkins, and they had their “James Dean” moment. I recall a picture of them in the car, taken by Frony, I’m sure, but I have no idea where that picture is. Larry & I wanted to go but we didn’t; not certain if it was because Mom said it was too late/early or if Raymond didn’t want a couple of 12-year olds tagging along — probably the latter.


  18. Awesome stories and pics. I tell folks about this bridge even to this very day. Purple Crackle and the Hush Puppy. Google street level pics show these as adult clubs now I guess. I guess most of us hit the drive through behind the Crackle and went back across the bridge to Cape.

  19. I remember the bridge well when it was a toll bridge, I also remember when the bridge at Chester Ill. fell into the river in a storm, probably in 1943 or 1944. We also had a cow cross the ice on the river an Dad put it in with our cow on South Benton. The cow had a tag in it’s ear with the owners name in Illinois on it. Dad contacted him and he came and got his cow.
    Joe Whitright “45”

  20. I considered crossing the Mississippi on the bridge a good thing. My terror was when I was little and we were living in Nashville and would cross the Mississippi on what was to me a scarey car ferry located near Paducah. We would then drive up the Missouri side to see relatives in CG.

  21. I always hated to cross the bridge, but the worst time was when they were resurfacing and you could see down through to the water.

  22. A retired colleague once told me what the kids in Scott City did. They walked back and forth across the river to Illinois on the railroad bridge. They had to time it so there would be no trains.

  23. I remember going over that old bridge in Mom’s old Plymouth, dubbed “Nelly”. We lived near the bridge and I had nightmares about walking on that bridge. When I was old enough to drive, it took all the courage I could muster to drive over the bridge without closing my eyes. God forbid I should meet a semi coming from the other direction!
    I have been gone from Cape for many years but the bridge is still a crystal clear memory.

  24. I too have fond memories of this bridge. I am now 80 years old / so a long time ago–

    One time I remember getting to the bridge was difficult as, the trip was back far enough / we still had runnung boards on our cars. This time the river had over flood / soooooo we traveled two miles or better with water way up over the running boards. My brother and I having a great time “as we were young” Mom was terrified / got over the bridge / and ended in Doniphan / our destination ,,

  25. Actually, continuing with other in–put above / I can remember crossing over the Mississippi River before the bridge was built / loading our family and car on to a raft like / Ferry. There was room only for car and family / would anyone know when / what year that was no longer being used—

    Thanks much !!!!!

  26. As an old and veteran truck driver, I had one of those “Blesses to be here today” experiences with the old bridge back in 2001 or 2002.

    I was heading back to Arkansas from Chicago in a long nosed Peterbilt, hauling a load of cheese. Making the mistake of trusting my atlas to have this route marked of any restrictions; which was the only and normal resource back then, I cut across from Kentucky and headed west/southwest on the two lane highway toward Cape Girardeau.

    It was just after midnight when I saw the road narrowed and in the headlights appeared a small old and abandonded building and the road curved to the right. Almost immediately, I had a strange feeling that a bad mistake may have been made.

    As I slowed my big lit up Pete and loaded 53′ reefer and maneuvered the tight and sharp curve, I saw a law enforcment vehicle setting parked on the right just before the steep, narrow, and eerie ramp to the old bridge started. At that same instant, I saw the weight limit sign and came to a slow crawl.

    I realized that I was stuck and left with one option, to place my faith in God and the powers that be and use every single skill and bit of my years of experience to ever so gently continue across.

    Waiting for that officer to turn on those lights and stop me as I let that big red, chrome, beautifully lit, and powerful truck very slowly pull its way up that ramp, I could not see the flat surface of the bridge. Instead, all I could see over that hood was the old rusty headlight lit steel framework of the bridge and the stars shining brightly above it.

    As I looked to the left, I could see the lights and some equipment; which were setting far down at the bottom of the gorge and on the East side. Suddenly, and as the realization that one of them was actually a semi trailer of some type and how far down it was, I was hit by the scary soft and wavy feeling of the truck just actually leveling off and her wieght being put onto this old bridges shakey and time worn frame.

    It was then, that I could feel the bouncing and movement all round me. It was almost as though I were about to drop then gently being lifted repeatedly. Suddenly, I realized that I had made the greatest mistake of my life and was in the hands of God or whatever powers were in control that night.

    My hands were white and gripping the steering wheel tighter than I realized or had ever experience, every muscle in my body was torqued to the max, my heart was racing, I was pouring sweat, I was literally using every bit of my military paratrooper training and instinct to not freeze up and maintain control over panicking, and not make the fatal mistake of shifting gears or causing any sudden torque and movement.

    I could hear popping of the old steel beneath and around me. I could feel the up and down movement. I could feel the movement as the big Caterpillar engine hit each power stroke to gently pull us along and closer to the end; whichever it was to be this night. All I could do was hold on, watch, and actually pray.

    As I neared the end, I looked down one last time at the river and the area where the lights and tiny vehicles, trailer, and equipment were setting far below. I then looked ahead and could see the city and the street; which was downhill and leading to Cape Girardeau, and thanked God as I felt solid ground beneath me again. I was alive and safe!

    I came to a complete stop in the road and just looked through the windshield at the sky, the city lights, and knew that I was not alone. Right then and there, I made a promise that I would never pull another act like that again. My old renegade driver days were over! I was given a pardon. Perhaps even that officer was even watching and praying for me that night as he sat there and watched!

    Who knows, perhaps I was the last old fool in a beautiful, lit up Peterbilt to challenge that old beast for the last time in her life. She held for me, kept me safe, and proudly served her purpose in time and history one last time. I was foolish, but I am proud to have traveled the route that many of my old trucker predecessors have traveled for decades. Her history lives on in my mind and every time I tell this old “trucker’s story”! To this day, I am grateful. I am even shocked that I wasn’t fined or arrested! It was an honest mistake! I was blessed and lucky.

    I pray for the safety of all those truckers out there today. Also for the civilians around them as they do their jobs safely and professionally. Most of all, I salute and thank all of the many drivers from my past; wheather with us today or passed on, for all of the many miles and sacrifices they have put into making the industry what it was before the government and all of these greedy corporate fools took over and ruined it.

    I’ll never forget the old historical Cape Girardeau Bridge!

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