In the 1840s, crossing the raging Missouri River was a harrowing struggle. Men, women and children in schooners, on foot and riding horses had to get across the water in a way they would survive that would keep all their supplies and possessions intact. It took 100 years to build a permanent structure across the water. This article explores the bridge, the ferries, the politics, the economics and more. This is a history of the Mormon Bridge.
Beginning of the Road to Zion
The history of the Mormon Bridge in the Florence neighborhood started more than a century before the bridge was built. Even though there was a ferry there when they arrived, when Mormon pioneers arrived at the Missouri River in 1846, they quickly established their own ferry across the Missouri River. At that time it was called the Mormon ferry. They discovered the river right there has a rock bottom, and determined they should cross there and eventually, a bridge should be built in that place too.
In the next decade there were four other ferries operated across the river for explorers, fur traders, military men, sightseers, Mormon settlers and emigrants, gold seekers, and many other emigrants crossing the river. During this era, the ferry was operated according to the Mormon policy of segregating themselves from non-Mormons. That led most Mormons to cross at Florence and stay away from the Omaha ferry and most non-Mormons to stay away from the Florence Ferry. This was called the “North Mormon ferry” because of the Sarpy ferry, also called the South Mormon ferry.
Pottawattamie County supervisors gave the first ferry license to George A. Smith in May 1849, and it was valid for 12 years. Known as the Winter Quarters ferry, Smith ran it for just a few years. That year, the ferry ran eight months from April to December; the next year, it ran from April to October. The costs were:
- Carriage Cost, 50¢
- For all four-wheeled carriages or conveyances, 50¢
- For all two-wheeled carriages or conveyances, 35¢
- Every yoke of oxen, 12¢
- All loose cattle, 1¢ each
- Sheep, 2¢ each
- Hogs, 3¢ each
- All horses, mules, or jacks, 10¢ each
- Man and horse, 25¢
- Footman, 10¢
While the Winter Quarters was abandoned by then, in 1852 the ferry became known as the “Golden Gate” because of so many gold speculators crossing the river there.
In 1855, the Florence Ferry Corporation was established by the first Nebraska Territorial Legislature and given a monopoly over the ferry crossing at the new town of Florence. The next year, town founder James C. Mitchell (1810-1860), noted that he owned,
“One half of the Ferry Privilege, with steam Ferry Boat and about 25 acres of Land at the Ferry Landing.”
That same year, the first attempt to build the Florence Bridge was made. The Nebraska Territorial Legislature granted an incorporation to the Florence Bridge Company for the first time in February 1855, and included James C. Mitchell, along with fur trader Peter Sarpy, James Parker (1824-1902) and several others.
Getting to Rock Bottom
James C. Mitchell was a land speculator from Iowa who carefully watched the Mormon pioneers slowly, steadily abandon the township they established in Indian Territory called Winter Quarters. As they left, he bought, schemed and otherwise acquired the township, including blocks of empty shacks, shabbily plowed streets, and empty overgrown lots awaiting new homes. Illegally, he staked out his claim to the area in 1853, and soon owned the entire thing. That formally happened in 1854, as soon as the newly-formed Nebraska Territory was opened for settlement.
Mitchell almost named his new town “Rock Bottom” because of the wide, flat bottom of the river. However, his wife talked him into naming the town after their niece, who they’d recently adopted. Florence was formally established in 1856. In addition to his land company, Mitchell owned majority shares of the Florence Mill, the Florence Ferry Company, the Daily Florence Courier newspaper, a saloon and other businesses. He started running a steamer from Florence to St. Louis in 1856. In 1857, a newspaper called the Omaha Nebraskanian called Mitchell, “The great mogul of Rock Bottom.”
At the beginning of the town of Florence in 1854, the ferry was referred to still as theWinter Quarters Ferry or the Old Mormon Ferry.
The Florence Bank was opened by Cook and Sargent, and run by James Parker. Cook and Sargent were also agents for the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad and recommended that company build a bridge across the Missouri River at Florence because of the rock bottom. While that never came to fruition and the Florence Bank folded just a few years after it opened, James Parker became a wealthy landowner and sold much of the nearby property residents enjoy today, including land that became Florence Field and Minne Lusa.
An 1855 ad in a newspaper called the Council Bluffs Chronotype said it would be “but a small affair to build a bridge at this point,” referring to Florence. Other ads for the town also said the town had the best ferry landing on the Missouri, and had “good, permanent steamboat landings on both shores, and perhaps, on the Missouri River.” In 1857, James Mitchell and the Florence Bridge Company got a bridge charter allowing them to collect money for construction. In February, the Florence Courier carried the following notice about the Florence Bridge Company,
The subscription books of this company have been opened, the stock all subscribed, and a permanent organization effected. A thorough survey has been made by competent engineers, the bridge located and a number of men are already engaged fulfilling a contract for excavating a large amount of earth preparatory to commencing the abutment on this side of the river. Contracts for the mason work and superstructure will be let early in the spring, the whole of this magnificent enterprise pushed through to completion the first day of January 1859, at farthest.
The subscribers (investors) in the 1857 bridge plan pooled $200,000. They included James C . Mitchell for $25,000; P. C. Chapman, $10,000; R . S . Bryant, $10,000; A. B. Malcolm, $10,000; James G. Chapman, $5,000; E. P. Brewster, $5,000; A. F. Heath, $10,000; Henry C. Riordan, $10,000; Charles Home, $2,000; R. W. Steele, $15,000; Samuel Forgy, $2,000; D . B . Hawley, $12,000; W. L . Baugh, $10,000; Ailing & Chipman, $10,000; J. F. Pugsly, $5,000; Wm. Conner, $10,000; John H . Brackin, $5,000; J. B. Stutsman, $10,000; A. C. Smith, $10,000, and; the firm of Cook, Sargent and Parker, $10,000.
This money was supposed to be leverage against money from the federal government that never came to fruition. James C. Mitchell even travelled to Washington, D.C. to lobby lawmakers directly. However, the Florence Bridge was not built by this original bridge company. Not starting the bridge at this point severely damaged the growth of Florence. Within three years, along with the bridge, the town the lost an opportunity to become the capital of Nebraska; and the collapse of the Florence Bank.
That same year, in 1857, James Parker brought James Durant (1820-1885) and Peter Dey (1825-1911) of the Union Pacific Railroad to Florence. Attracted by the rock bottom of the river, Durant and Dey were informally surveying sites for the first railroad bridge to cross the Missouri River. Parker took the Union Pacific men to the bridge site at the Florence Ferry landing. When the town was informed a few weeks later they didn’t land the bridge, a town father named Jacob Weber (1833-1923) claimed high water flooding at the time damaged Florence’s chance to get the bridge.
James Mitchell died just three years later at the age of 49. Many said he was brokenhearted from losing the bridge project.
In 1872, the Florence Ferry site was selected again as a possible crossing for the first transcontinental railroad bridge across the Missouri River. Omaha was chosen by the Union Pacific, and Florence was left behind. In 1885, the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Railway began digging for the footings for a bridge on the site, but wasn’t completed.
An interview with a Florence old-timer in the 1960s described the flatboat ferry in the 1890s, saying that,
“…there was an unpaved street from 30th to the river north of the water works and someone had put a steel cable across the river from the end of this street. The ferry was nothing but a wooden barge, large enough for one car or one wagon. There was no motor. It was hung onto the cable and the river current pushed it back and forth.”
The Florence Improvement Club tried an informal attempt in 1905, but didn’t gain traction. The second formal attempt to build the bridge was made in 1913, and a fourth attempt was started in 1922. In 1936, the third attempt to build a bridge was made by the Florence Bridge Commission, which was incorporated by the Nebraska Legislature for the third time that year. However, the best intentions were thwarted by the Great Depression, and the bridge wasn’t built again.
By the 1920s, the Florence Ferry landing was owned by the Metropolitan Utilities District (MUD). In 1931, the City of Omaha gave a subsidy to the private ferry operator, and MUD gave permission for the ferry to use the landing.
North Omaha Bridge Commission
The duties of the original bridge commissions were ceded to a newly formed Douglas County Nebraska Bridge Commission in the late 1940s. The fifth and final launch to build a bridge was made by the North Omaha Bridge Commission in 1950, when that group was incorporated by the Nebraska Legislature for the first time.
Funding for the bridge was made possible because of the 1946 General Bridge Act. Ground was broken for construction on May 1, 1951. With regards to the groundbreaking ceremony, the Omaha World-Herald wrote, “seven [social] clubs north of Ames are sponsoring the celebration.” A celebration meal was hosted at the Birchwood Club beforehand.
The bridge building wasn’t without controversy. In September 1951, a massive vandalism spree left a dozen construction vehicles on the construction site with more than $15,000 damage. Newspaper reports suggested it was done by knowledgable vandals who were targeting the project for specific reasons, but there were no follow-up reports suggesting the police found out who did it.
In 1950, a public sale of $3.45 million in bonds by the Commission sold out in within an hour and a half. Construction started in May 1951, focused on building 14 piers across the distance. Three of them were in the limestone footing of the riverbed, with the eastern and central piers of the bridge located at 26 and 16 feet below the water’s surface. The third, westernmost pier is at 48 feet below. Challenged to meet their needs because of the Korean War, the commission succeeded in securing 3,800 tons of steel for the project.
In 1952, the highway ferry stopped operating, and on December 14, 1952, the original single span of the Mormon Bridge opened. When it opened, the original span of the Mormon Pioneer Memorial Bridge was a 1,603-feet long. It carries two-way traffic across a 26-foot-wide deck, and connects Iowa and Nebraska across the Florence Bend of the Missouri River.
The official two-day dedication celebration of the opening of the Mormon Pioneer Memorial Bridge started on June 1, 1953. Much ballyhoo was made about the Mormon roots of the effort, including the president of the church cutting the ribbon at the ceremony, and the bridge following the route of the 1846 Mormon Trail from the Iowa side to Winter Quarter and beyond. The bridge’s construction was featured in a church magazine, and the church president detailed the history of the bridge during the construction. Perhaps most importantly, the ceremonies started on the anniversary of Brigham Young’s birthday.
Mormon Bridge Toll Plaza
One of the features of the new bridge was a Mormon Bridge toll plaza, which collected tolls from each lane on the original bridge. The original toll was .35¢. It was increased to .50¢, and in the last two years it cost .75¢ to cross the bridge.
In 1979, tollhouse building from the plaza built in 1951 was moved to Dick Collins Road, and later to 3010 Willit Street, where it stands today.
After the Original Opened
In 1956, Iowa transportation officials considered building the Iowa Turnpike, a state-long toll road, using the Mormon Bridge to enter Nebraska. However, after feasibility studies couldn’t agree on the most effective routing the project was dropped.
The connecting road on the Iowa side from I-29 to the bridge was finished in 1951. It was a two-lane road called the Mormon Trail built and owned by the North Omaha Bridge Commission, and maintained with toll money. More than 20 years later, on November 10, 1973, a 4-lane highway replaced the Mormon Trail connecting the bridge to I-29. Eventually, two road beds replaced the original highway.
By 1979, the States of Nebraska and Iowa entered into an ownership compact ensuring mutual governance over the bridge.
The second (westward) span was finished in summer 1975, and is 1,711 feet long and 40-feet-wide. The bridge was structurally similar to the original, but not identical. The process of constructing it was much faster and smoother than the original 22-years earlier.
In 1979, the bridge and connecting highway to I-29 were designated as Interstate 680, which wraps through Omaha and connects with I-80. That same year, the Commission paid off the remainder of the bonds from the project, and the toll plaza was removed on April 21, 1979, for vehicles to travel freely over the bridge. A massive celebration was held in Florence to celebrate the opening of I-680, the end of the bridge construction process and the connection of North Omaha to the interstate system. There was a huge dance, fireworks over the bridge and more fanfare that served as a boost for the Florence neighborhood.
The connecting road from I-29 to the city of Crescent, Iowa is still called the Old Mormon Bridge Road today. It maintains its two-lane appearance and looks mostly the same as it did when it was the only road between Florence and Crescent, and the old Lincoln Highway there that was once the main highway across the United States.
The Bridge in the New Millinieum
While there are occasional paint touch-ups on the bridge, a recent three-year project redid the entire appearance. From 2018 through 2020, the Mormon Bridge was the subject of an $11 million extensive stripping and thorough paint job. Saddled with salmon pink tarps, the Nebraska Department of Transportation focused on capturing the lead paint and dust removed from the bridge to ensure complete retention. The lead paint is very dangerous for humans, especially kids. During the restoration, the bridge color changed from faded green to blue, the bridge deck will repaired and a fresh coat of asphalt will be applied.
After a brief closure in April 2019, one lane of I-680 was closed over the Mormon Bridge for several months because of flooding on the Iowa side of the river. Full service was restored by 2020.
Today, the 1931 historical marker located on the northwest corner of J. J. Pershing Drive and Dick Collins Road is the only acknowledgment of the bridge’s historical legacy. Despite its historical importance, the structure has not been listed on the National Register of Historic Places or designated as an official Omaha Landmark by the City of Omaha Landmark Heritage Preservation Commission.
You Might Like…
- A History of the Mitchell House in North Omaha
- A History of the East Omaha Bridge
- A History of Streets in North Omaha
- A History of the Florence Neighborhood
- Mormon Bridge Wikipedia article
- “Mormon Pioneer Memorial Bridge,” Highways, Byways and Bridge Photography by John A. Weeks II
- “Florence and the Political Machine” by Linda Persigehl for Omaha Magazine on May 10, 2017
- “The founding of Florence, Nebraska, 1854-1860” by Marian G. Miles for the University of Nebraska – Omaha, 6-19-1970.