1935 Crash Leads to New Cass Street Bridge
(written by David Kranz, Archives Staff)
A single car caused the destruction you see in the above photo, an accident that involved the deaths of two people and cut off land traffic between downtown La Crosse and Pettibone Island and also Minnesota in 1935.
Just after 1:30 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 9, the driver of an Auburn sedan lost control as he headed up the western approach to the swing bridge over the Mississippi River. The car hit one of the bridge’s steel girders, snapped it, then fell front-first and sank into the water below. The driver and one passenger managed to crawl out of the mostly submerged car, but two passengers in the rear did not emerge.
The La Crosse Tribune reported Aug. 9 that a pair of bystanders and a police officer braved the dark water, jumping down to extricate and bring to land the remaining pair. Despite an hour’s effort by the fire department’s rescue team, the two passengers were pronounced dead.
In the light of day, as family and friends began to mourn the loss of Francis and Ethel Landrieu and dealt with informing the Landrieus’ two small children that their parents would not be returning, others in La Crosse turned their attention to the bridge.
A 131-foot section at the west end of the Mt. Vernon Street swing bridge had collapsed as a result of the accident. Automobile traffic was being routed to Winona, Minn., and heavy trucks had to cross even farther away, at Lansing, Iowa, or Nelson, Wis. People needing to cross back and forth for work or other travel had to rely on boats.
A repair would have to be made. Beyond repair, a new trans-channel bridge was immediately called for by the Chamber of Commerce, local business people, and the editor of the La Crosse Tribune. Already in the paper that day, an editorial questioned the viability of the swing bridge, built in 1891, after one car destroyed nearly a quarter of it, adding, “The move for a new bridge could be started on no better day than that on which the bodies of two persons were retrieved from the water – drowned because a 40-year-old bridge can no longer stand up under the strain of modern day traffic!”
The local Chamber of Commerce agreed, quickly forming a committee to push for a new Mississippi River bridge. This committee, the La Crosse Bridge Association, was successful – and four years later was organizing the dedication of a brand-new bridge at Cass Street.
On Saturday, Sept. 23, 1939, Wisconsin Governor Julius Heil (left of center in lighter coat) and Winona, Minn., Mayor Floyd R. Simon (right of center with hat in hand) held a ceremonial garland as La Crosse Board of Supervisors Chairman R.W. Davis and La Crosse Mayor Joseph J. Verchota officially opened the new bridge. A parade in the morning featured several marching bands from throughout the region, including Viola, Wis., and Spring Grove, Minn. Cars lined up all the way to La Crescent just to try the new bridge. Evening activities included a Native American dance presentation in Riverside Park and a procession of boats carrying strings of lighted Japanese lanterns. Events concluded with a major fireworks display.
Records of the La Crosse Bridge Association are held by the La Crosse Public Library Archives. You can visit the Archives to read about their discussions, learn more about the 1935 bridge accident and see photos of the 1939 celebrations. A bit more about the committee and the archived collection’s contents can be seen here.
Briefly in 1939, the new Cass Street bridge, left, and the old Mt. Vernon Street bridge, upper right, both spanned the Mississippi. Demolition of the swing bridge began in late September 1939.
We can also see that the road to La Crescent, Minn., had to change for the new bridge. If you are interested in the history of this road, the old “ice bridge” that was used before the swing bridge was constructed, or other early La Crosse-area bridges, consider taking a look at the collection of resolutions and reports relating to bridges in the LPL Archives.