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A Bridge to the Past
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A Bridge to the Past

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A Bridge to the Past

 

The bridge at left is the last known section of a wagon bridge that opened in 1904 across the Arkansas River.

Early Tusans Paved Way to Future

There has been plenty of talk, primarily in and around Washington, D.C., about building a bridge to the 21st century.

That is not exactly an original theme.

Nearly 100 years ago, the talk around Tulsa centered on building a bridge to the future. And three Tulsans did more than just talk. They acted.

They built a bridge across the Arkansas River that served to carry Tulsa, Indian Territory, straight into the 20th century.

And if the bridge paved the way to the future, oil fueled the way.

Oil had been discovered on the other side of the river from Tulsa -- the west side -- in the community of Red Fork in 1901.

With vision and give-no- quarter determination, Tulsa fathers set about to promote their city as a railroad hub and as a center of the embryonic oil industry.

The bridge of their future would service the growing numbers of oil field workers who were taking up residency in Tulsa.

Oilmen staying in Tulsa had two crude ways of crossing the river into Red Fork: fording the sometimes treacherous waters or taking a slow and primitive ferry.

But there were other, more important reasons to build a bridge. A bridge across the river would help to expand Tulsa's all-too-small trade territory and, at the same time, it would help to slow, or stop, the expansion of neighboring and competing towns. A fast- growing Tulsa, with newly constructed hotels and boarding houses, kept up with the demands of the new arrivals. And a bridge would facilitate their travel needs.

In 1903, Tulsa's population was said to be around 3,000. To the west, Sapulpa boasted a population closer to 5,000. In 1905, Tulsa's population hit 5,000, and by 1907, the year of statehood, it had boomed to 13,000. Sapulpa's growth never kept pace.

Historians have agreed that without the bridge, the oil business would have gone to Sapulpa as a supply center and that Tulsa and Sapulpa would have been in opposite population positions today.

In 1884, the Frisco Railroad had built a bridge across the Arkansas near what is today 11th Street. But the railroad carried cattle and freight, not passengers.

A bond issue to finance the construction of a bridge failed to materialize in 1902 because the location was outside the city limits.

Undaunted by that temporary setback, three Tulsa businessmen emerged during the next year with the resources and foresight to move ahead.

M.L. Baird, George T. Williamson and J.D. Hagler pooled their efforts, gaining additional financing from a group in Kansas City, and proceeded to build their own bridge near the railroad span.

The nearly 1,200-foot iron bridge cost $44,000 and was under construction for six months. It was to be the first wagon bridge in Indian Territory across the Arkansas River.

Printed reports of the day chronicled the work this way: "They filled old boilers with concrete, got Indians to cut down trees and saw the oak lumber for the floor, secured some steel on credit from Kansas City, and built the bridge."

The wagon bridge at 11th Street, which city fathers did not approve by vote, was opened for traffic on Jan. 4, 1904. Above the entrance on the Tulsa side of the bridge was an iron marker bearing the phrase: "They said we couldn't do it, but we did."

The words, typifying the never-say-die spirit of early-day Tulsans, became the motto for a city on the move.

And, as if in a preview of things to come, the bridge was opened as a toll bridge.

Tolls ranged from 10 cents to 25 cents for pedestrians and wagons and livestock. The toll money was used to pay off the Kansas City loan.

The three entrepreneurs might have been unaware that their generous contribution, along with its beneficial results, would be recorded in the annals of Tulsa's history. But their actions, in addition to spurring the city's population boom, initiated the public-private partnership that is credited with being the most predominant contributory factor in Tulsa's century-long success.

That initial bridge continued to collect tolls until 1909, when Tulsa County commissioners purchased it for $21,000 and converted it into a free road, which was used until 1917.

A replacement bridge, made of concrete and steel, was completed that year near the same 11th Street crossing.

The old bridge was disassembled and floated upstream to Sand Springs, where it was the Oklahoma 97 bridge across the Arkansas until 1932. Again, it was replaced by a new span.

Under state law, the old bridge became county property. It was broken up, and its 17 spans were divided to be used as bridges for county roads.

Tulsa historian Beryl Ford said the last-known span of that 1904 bridge, a 70-foot section, stands neglected and unused near recently repaved and rerouted 66th Street North in Owasso.

Ford is leading a drive to return the span to its Arkansas River roots and re-establish it in River Parks as a monument to the city's pioneer spirit.

He said costs to move the bridge span to the Crow Creek site near 32nd Street and Riverside Drive and for some renovation work would be approximately $125,000.

That's a small price to pay, he says, to preserve an important part of Tulsa's past.

"The phrase, `They said we couldn't do it, but we did,' " might not have been used first by Williamson, Baird and Hagler, because it probably applied to any man with spunk in Tulsa in those days," Ford says.

"But it sure would influence the thinking of every future generation of Tulsans."

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