US 41 and Ohio River Bridge at Evansville

When the Great Renumbering occurred on 1 October 1926, the new United States Highway number 41 left Evansville aiming due south. At that time, there was a ferry across the Ohio River, allowing passengers to connect to the rest of the country via US 41 through Kentucky. For a brief time in 1930, US 41 was rerouted along the Ohio River, crossing via a ferry directly into Henderson, Kentucky. By 1932, it was back to the old route, due south of Evansville…and still using the ferry. Bridge construction was on the minds of the people on both sides of the river. It took a while…but it happened.

What most people don’t understand about the Ohio River at Evansville is that 1) there are actually two crossings…one in entirely in Kentucky and 2) crossing the Ohio River required not only the states to agree, but also the Federal Government. The legal state line separating Kentucky and Indiana is the low water mark of the Ohio River on the north side of said river. At Evansville, that low water mark is actually north of the main channel of the river. A channel separates the state of Indiana from Green River Island, which is entirely in Kentucky. The actual location of the state line makes me question the whole financing deal with crossing the river. Indiana and Kentucky tend to share the entire cost of bridges across the Ohio 50/50…even though most of the river, 80% or more, is in Kentucky.

Crossing the Ohio also requires permission from the Army Corps of Engineers due to its use as a major water highway. From Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to the place it empties into the Mississippi River, the river falls into a Federal jurisdiction. Which makes sense, actually, since the river forms the state lines between West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois along its course.

The first mention of a bridge at Evansville was before the Great Renumbering. The Muncie Star-Press of 31 December 1924 mentions that the United States Senate had passed a bill allowing for the construction of three bridges across the Ohio River: one at Evansville; one connecting Portsmouth, Ohio, to Fullerton, Kentucky; and one from Huntington, West Virginia, to a point in Ohio opposite.

There were several attempts to bridge the Ohio River as part of US 41 in the years leading up to the final construction. Newspapers in 1928 were all covering a new law being pushed through Congress for that very purpose. According to press reports at the time, the building of a bridge in the area “has been the cause of heated discussions at Evansville for a year or more.” One solution was the “reported formation of a private company to seek a federal franchise for a toll bridge at Evansville.” This is after “other private efforts to build the Ohio river bridge at Evansville have failed.” In December, 1927, the Indiana State Highway Commission turned down three private offers to build a bridge. ISHC Director John D. Williams issued a statement “to the effect that a provision for private financing of public bridge projects, such as the Evansville bridge, would be an aid to the commission, in that it would not tie up a large part of the available funds in one project.”

In 1928, a hearing for a temporary restraining order against building the Ohio River bridge at Evansville was to be held on 20 October 1928. It was filed along with and injunction suit in Marion County Superior Court. The suit and restraining order was asked for by four Evansville residents and the directors of the Hoosier Motor Club. The argument was that Indiana would be paying half the cost of the bridge which would essentially be a loan to the Commonwealth of Kentucky since Kentucky would be collecting all of the toll revenue. That revenue would be used, it was argued, to repay said loan. “The suit said approval of the interstate contract was made ‘unlawfully and without warrant or authority in law.'” A suit by the Commonwealth of Kentucky would be heard by the United States Supreme Court wanting to have Indiana follow the terms of the agreement for financing the bridge. This put the former suit on hold until the Supreme Court ruled. The Supreme Court did rule on 19 May 1930, requiring Indiana to carry out said contract.

30 September 1930 Indiana Official Highway Map showing
US 41’s temporary route along the Ohio River.

It wouldn’t be until October 1930 that contracts, totaling $2,079,866.24, were let for the bridge to be built. The bridge itself would be massive. According to reports, with the opening of the bridge, the structure would total 5,395 feet with a curb width of 30 feet. “Main cantilever superstructure has four spans of 540, 600, 720 and 432 respectively, or a total length of 2,290 feet.” The bridge would have a navigation clearance of 45 feet above the level of the Ohio River at the time of the flood of 1913. That was, at the time, the highest recorded flood of the Ohio at that point. The piers for the bridge dive 80 feet below low water level. The approach spans were also mammoth: south approach was 2,038 feet; and the north approach was 1,063 feet.

It was also mentioned that although the bridge is entirely in Kentucky, the cost for the structure was shared equally by both states. This “has been the cause of many heated words, especially in the Hoosier legislature, but the two states’ highway officials reached their agreement in a friendly, peaceful conference.”

The bridge’s opening ceremony would span several days in the beginning of July, 1932. Evansville and Henderson, Kentucky, would have multiple groups celebrating the opening of the new span. The new bridge would require tolls to be paid to use it. These tolls would be in place until 20 March, 1941, when an agreement between the two states allowed the bridge tolls to be removed. Although the last Kentucky bond for the bridge would be paid off on 1 January 1941, the agreement to continue tolls until March would be for Kentucky to recoup maintenance costs of $216,8383.37.

Indianapolis Star. 3 July 1932. Three days of opening ceremonies for the new bridge to start that day.

A contract was let in February 1936 to the Swanson-Nunn Electric Company of Evansville to install navigation lights on the structure. There was no completion date set for the $4,569 contract.

The bridge that opened in 1932 would serve dutifully until it was decided that a second, parallel structure, was needed. This new facility would cost $5.5 million dollars. It would be located 150 feet downstream from the first bridge, and would carry southbound US 41 traffic to Kentucky, with the old bridge being used for northbound travelers. Both bridges would be configured for two lanes of traffic, even though the original bridge was configured to carry three lanes. Financing for the new bridge would be shared by the Federal government (50%), with Indiana and Kentucky sharing equally the rest of the cost, “even though the Ohio River is in Kentucky.” This was due to US 41’s status as a “primary” highway as opposed to being an “interstate” highway. The contract for the substructure of the second bridge was announced in newspapers on 27 June 1962.

The status of the “Twin Bridges” between Evansville and Henderson are currently in flux. There are many differing plans concerning the spanning of the Ohio River by Interstate 69, which ends, as of this writing, at US 41 in Evansville. It’s possible that one of the bridges will remain, carrying US 41 traffic, while new facilities are built for the interstate. I am sure that when something is set in stone, I will cover it here. I am also sure that the state of Indiana will again share the cost of a set of bridges that are entirely in Kentucky.

2 thoughts on “US 41 and Ohio River Bridge at Evansville

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