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Guide to the La Crosse, Wisconsin, Bridge Engineer Records, 1901-1939 La Crosse Series 044

Guide to the La Crosse, Wisconsin, Bridge Engineer Records, 1901-1939

La Crosse Series 044

Summary Information

Directed by the Board of Public Works, the bridge engineer was responsible for operating the drawbridge/swinging span mechanism on the municipal Mississippi River wagon bridge. This bridge was in use from 1891-1939 and was built and maintained by the City of La Crosse (Wis.). These records date from 1901-1939 and list river traffic, mainly steamboats and barges, that required the swinging span to be opened. Information included in these records are the name of and the time the vessel(s) passed through the bridge opening. Occasionally an engineer would note what the vessel was carrying, such as logs or lumber. The records end on Sept. 23, 1939, when the new high bridge at La Crosse was completed by the Wisconsin Highway Commission.
Collection Title
La Crosse, Wisconsin, Bridge Engineer Records
Date of Materials
La Crosse (Wis.). Bridge Engineer.
Call Number
La Crosse Series 044
0.8 cubic feet
Physical Description
2 archives boxes
Language of Materials
La Crosse Public Library Archives

Preferred Citation

[Identification of item], La Crosse, Wisconsin, Bridge Engineer Records, La Crosse Series 044, La Crosse Public Library Archives, La Crosse, WI

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Historical Note

Although the Mississippi River wagon bridge was never a railroad bridge, the railroads did play a role in the history of the municipal bridge, completed in 1891. A battle between the interests of the Southern Minnesota Railroad and those of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad raged until 1876 when the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad constructed a bridge across the Mississippi River in North La Crosse. Congress had to give permission for any bridge spanning over the Mississippi so that river transportation or navigation would not be jeopardized. In the 1870s and 1880s, many proposals for new bridge or ferry projects across the main river channel fell apart. Residents hoped that the proposed Southern Minnesota Railroad bridge, planned for at the end of Mount Vernon Street in the 1870s, could somehow be a combination wagon and railroad bridge. But the Southern Minnesota Railroad was unable financially to complete a bridge.

Because the river was considered unnavigable in the winter, the city of La Crosse was able to construct a “winter bridge” or ice bridge across the Mississippi River after the close of navigation in the fall without permission from the federal government. “Winter bridges were built of piling, driven through the ice, and timbers in the usual way, but with opening of navigation in spring they were removed.”(1)

To promote commerce and communication, it was imperative that a bridge across the Mississippi River be built to accommodate teams, wagons, and people to and from La Crosse, Wisconsin, and La Crescent, Minnesota. Minnesota Farmers were taking their produce and business to other Minnesota towns, such as Winona, even though La Crosse paid higher prices for these goods.

Financed by a $70,000 city bond issue approved by La Crosse voters, plans for a wagon bridge across the Mississippi River were underway by 1888.(2) The Department of War and the U.S. Corps of Engineers initially did not like the bridge plans or the proposal to have the bridge be connected to the end of Pearl Street. But the plans were altered to accommodate a Mount Vernon approach, and by 1891, a toll drawbridge (swinging span) was completed, as well as a pontoon bridge that spanned the west channel, and a “highwater road” and several small bridges to La Crescent, MN. The swinging span boasted being “the longest swing span in America” and had a weight limit of 7½ ton loads.(3) The toll on the main channel bridge was lifted in 1919. The state of Wisconsin took over maintenance of the bridge in 1930.

The Board of Public Works directed the Bridge Engineer and bridge tenders. The Engineers worked the swinging bridge mechanism, while the tenders kept the coal burning in the boilers to generate energy to swing the span open and closed.(4) Toll collectors were employed from 1891-1919.

This main channel drawbridge stood until Aug. 1935 when a fatal traffic accident caused 131 feet of the western side of the bridge to collapse into the river.(5) A new main channel bridge was completed that connected Cass Street to Pettibone Island in Sept. 1939, and the old bridge was then dismantled. The $1,500,000 main channel bridge was constructed by the Wisconsin Highway Commission, just on the heels of a new west channel bridge completed in 1936 as a joint Wisconsin-Minnesota Highway Commission project.(6) At the time, it was the “largest project ever undertaken by the state, the building of this bridge has been a project in which cooperation between city, county and state has been exemplified to a high degree.”(7)


(1) Albert H. Sanford and H.J. Hirshheimer, A History of La Crosse, Wisconsin, 1841-1900 (La Crosse, WI : La Crosse County Historical Society), 1951: 152; and La Crosse Democrat, 21 Oct. 1870. In the Sanford & Hirshheimer book, there is also a good description of the ferry monopoly across the Mississippi River from 1857-1869.

(2) For a good brief article on the history of the 1891 “High Bridge”, consult E.H. Hoffman, “Curbstone Pickups,” La Crosse Tribune 21 Sept. 1939.

(3) “New River Bridge,” La Crosse Tribune 5 Feb. 1939, p.1.

(4) “Working Days on Old Bridge End Saturday for Tenders and Engineers; All are Happy over Modern Structure,” La Crosse Tribune 21 Sept. 1939. This article also describes the log rafts that floated down the river and the first automobile to cross the bridge.

(5) “Two Drown as Mississippi River Bridge Caves in Under Automobile,” La Crosse Tribune 9 Aug. 1935: 1.

(6) “New West Channel Bridge,” La Crosse Tribune 1 Jan. 1936.

(7) “Highway Commission Shares City’s Satisfaction in Bridge Completion,” La Crosse Tribune 21 Sept. 1939.

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Scope and Contents

Records of the Bridge Engineer which include lists of river traffic on the main channel Mississippi River wagon bridge at La Crosse, Wis., from 1901 to the bridge’s closing in Sept. 1939. Information generally included the name of and the date and time a vessel passed through the opening of the swinging span. Occasionally an engineer would note what the vessel was carrying, such as logs or lumber. Generally steamboats and barges required use of the swinging span. The original order of these volumes has been maintained.

One of the best uses of this series is identifying the volume of river traffic that required the bridge to be opened. The height of traffic was between 1895-1916, just at the tail end of the lumber trade in La Crosse.

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Administrative Information

Publication Information

La Crosse Public Library Archives 1987-1999

800 Main St.
La Crosse, Wisconsin, 54601
(608) 789-7136

Access to Materials

Materials in this collection are available for patron use.

Acquisitions Information

(Accession no. x.028) Transferred by the Office of the City Clerk

Processing Information

Processed by Amy Groskopf, ca. 1987; reprocessed by Anita Taylor Doering, May 1999

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Related Materials

Related Materials

(La Crosse Series 022)
 La Crosse, Wisconsin, Office of the City Clerk, Reports of City Officers
(La Crosse Series 024)
 La Crosse, Wisconsin, Committee on Bridges, Resolutions and Reports Relating to Bridges

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Controlled Access Headings


  • Bridges--Mississippi River
  • Bridges--Wisconsin--La Crosse
  • Municipal government--Wisconsin--La Crosse
  • Public records--Wisconsin--La Crosse

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OCLC Number


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Collection Inventory


Mississippi River Bridge/Drawbridge and steamboat traffic, 1901-1939