The Time I Tried To Tear Down The Big Four Bridge

Thomas McAdam

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Readers may excuse my temporary lapse into the first-person singular, but I simply must tell you about the time I tried to tear down Louisville’s Big Four Bridge.

When I got out of the Army in 1970, the city was being run by the administration of Mayor Frank W. Burke, and I was hired to be Deputy Director of the Building and Housing Inspection Department. One of my duties was to monitor dilapidated structures, and encourage owners to repair or demolish them. The city had some federal grant money to defray the cost of demolishing substandard dwelling units, but usually had to resort to the threat of criminal sanctions to get businesses to remove dangerous and dilapidated commercial structures.

In late 1970, we received reports of chunks of rotting wood—railroad ties and the like—falling from the Big Four Bridge onto Interstate 64, along the Ohio riverfront. I went out with a couple of inspectors to investigate, and we walked the entire length of the structure. The rails had been removed, and all the brass fixtures on the firefighting hoses had been stolen for salvage value. The folks over at the Louisville Fire Department candidly admitted to me that, if the bridge ever caught fire, they would likely be unable to stop it from burning.

Built in 1895, the single track, six-span, 2,525 ft. railroad bridge over the Ohio River got its name from the defunct Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway, which was nicknamed the "Big Four Railroad". During its construction, 37 men were killed; more than all construction fatalities for all of Louisville’s other bridges, combined. Because of the location of the bridge, the Kennedy Bridge Interchange had to avoid the columns that were on the approach to the bridge, causing the interchange to have several two-lane ramps rather than a single stretch of highway, and helped earn the nickname Spaghetti Junction.

After the Big Four Railroad's parent company, the New York Central Railroad, was merged into the Penn Central in 1968, the bridge fell into disuse and disrepair. I wrote several letters to the officials at Penn Central, demanding that they take steps to remedy the nuisance and safety hazard they had abandoned. But the big shots in Philadelphia never took the time to answer.

Frustrated, I convened an administrative hearing at City Hall, giving notice to Penn Central to show cause why the structure should not be condemned as a hazard to public safety. When no one from the mammoth railroad company appeared at the hearing, I ordered it condemned and demolished. David vs. Goliath.

The problem, of course, was that my agency didn’t have anywhere near the amount of money it would have cost to demolish the bridge. One contractor proposed to cut it apart with explosives; but even after the salvage value of the steel superstructure, we were several million dollars short of being able to pay for it.

Then I happened to read an article in the Wall Street Journal, indicating that Penn Central had filed for Chapter-11 bankruptcy protection in federal court. On a whim, I wrote a stern letter to the Chief Judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Philadelphia, complaining about the lack of cooperation the sovereign City of Louisville was receiving from Penn Central executives. Then all hell broke loose.

The Bankruptcy Judge was apparently a pretty tough customer, and he came down hard on the folks at Penn Central. Within a week, I was receiving conciliatory telephone calls from Philadelphia lawyers and the suits at Penn Central headquarters. All of a sudden, they were simply overflowing with cooperation.

The lawyers did outsmart me on one score, however. The bridge itself is located over the Ohio River, and at the time, the Commonwealth of Kentucky extended to the Indiana shore of the river, but the City of Louisville stopped at the Kentucky shoreline. So, in those pre-Metro-merger days, my condemnation jurisdiction was limited to the Southern approaches to the bridge; the structure itself was located in Jefferson County.

The County building inspection department was run by the Republicans back then, and they were advised that they didn’t have the authority to condemn the bridge. The U.S. Corps of Engineers also demurred, saying that the bridge was not a navigational hazard, so long as lights could be maintained on each support pier. So Penn Central simply demolished the rotting wooden approaches within the city limits, and left the bridge itself intact, abandoned. (Later, Indiana authorities forced them to tear down the Northern approaches to the bridge.)

During the 1970s and 1980s, local radio station WLRS-102 FM lit up the Big Four Bridge as part of their "Bridge the Gap" Christmas promotion, which was used as a fund raiser for needy local families. The bridge caught fire on at least four occasions; in 1987 both the Jeffersonville and Louisville Fire Departments fought eight hours to put out the blaze.

On May 7, 2008 the bridge caught fire again, and a boat from the Harrods Creek Fire Department was used to put out the fire, as Louisville's fire boat did not have a hose which could reach the blaze upon the bridge. It took two and a half hours to control the fire.

On February 15, 2011, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels announced the two states, along with the City of Jeffersonville, would allocate $22 million in funding to complete the Big Four Bridge – creating a pedestrian and bicycle path to link Louisville and Jeffersonville. The agreement has turned the unused, rusting hulk into a new pathway that provides connections from Louisville’s Waterfront Park to downtown Jeffersonville.

“The governors of Kentucky and Indiana are working together to make great things happen for Louisville and Southern Indiana,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said at the time. “The Big Four will not only link both sides of the Ohio River, it helps bridge our communities together. We are one city, one community and one family, as I said in my inaugural address. Let me add a fourth element: We are one region. This project is proof of that.”

In his 2011 press release, Gov. Beshear predicted that The Big Four Bridge could reopen to pedestrians and cyclists in early 2013 (it did). And the press release concluded with: “The historic bridge, which was built for railroad traffic in 1895, was closed and its approaches removed in 1969.”

Not to quibble, but the approaches were removed in 1971. I know. I was there.

Learn more: The Big Four Bridge 

(Photo Credit: Tom McAdam)


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