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THE ROCK RIVER
Bridges of Lee County

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The Galena Avenua Bridge in 1907 - Contributed by Tom Hess


Historical Reminiscences by George Lamb -
The word "obstacle" is defined as "something that stands in the way or obstructs progress." The Rock River, as with all other rivers and streams throughout the world, has over the years presented an obstacle to men wishing to cross it. And, like all other such obstacles, various means and methods have been tried some successfully, some not --- from the beginnings of time to the present in an effort to succeed.

The first persons to try to cross the Rock River were, no doubt, the Indians who at one time lived in the rich valley area. Although no recorded history is available, it must be presumed that swimming, wadding, canoeing and ferrying were the methods most commonly used in fording the stream.

In the period before 1827 northern Illinois began to awaken, the village of Chicago began to grow and travel on the Illinois River was starting. On the Mississippi River, in the Northwest, the lead-mining town of Galena attracted a tide of travel to and from the mines each spring and winter. All travel, by natural convenience, had to cross the Rock River which, in most places, was wide, deep and cut through high banks. The Winnebago and Inlet Swamps were equally impassable for travelers going either north or south as there were, at best, very poor crossings available. Travel in the area always met at either bank of the Rock River near where the present city of Dixon now stands and from this point only one trail led to Galena, that being the Boles-Kellogg Trair(later referred to as ''The Galena Trail". It soon became evident that the site for another important settlement was marked.

There were at that time some families of Pottawatomies living among the hills of the Rock River valley who helped whites cross the river.. At best, their equipment was poor, being only canoes, and they were not equal to the task, nor always obliging. John L. Bogardus of Fort Clark attempted to start a ferry across the river in 1827 but was driven from the vicinity by the Indians who feared the new enterprise as a threat to their livelihood. In the late spring of 1828, Joseph Ogee, at the urging of John Dixon, moved to the area and at once began a river crossing using the "poling" method whereby a boat was propelled across the stream by means of pushing it with long poles. ' Ogee was not interfered with by the Indians as both he and his wife had Indian biood; his ,wife, Madeline, being of the same Pottawatomie tribe as the nearby Indians. In April of 1830, when John Dixon bought the Ogee business, the poling method of crossing the river was still used, being replaced in 1835 by a rope ferry. Dixon's crossing was nearer to the present Galena Avenue crossing than Ogee's which had always started near his ca6fu site on what is now Peoria Avenue and ended wherever the river current of the day dictated.

From old account books kept by John Dixon it has been found that he charged 25 cents for ferrying a man and his horse across the river and continued doing so until 1846 when the first bridge across the Rock River was constructed.

In the 1845 session of the Illinois legislative council, Dixon secured the passage of a bridge and dam charter for the town of Dixon and was instrumental in seeing to it that the bridge was fmally built, although it ended the part of his business enterprise that had yielded him more than $800 the year before. The first bridge was constructed at a cost of $8,000 by the Rock River Bridge and Dam Co. at the foot of Ottawa Avenue and became the first of many toll structures that would cross the rushing waters below. Built in the fall and winter of 1846 and 1847, it was swept away in March and was rebuilt two feet higher the following summer at an additional cost of $2,000.

During 1856, a free bridge was started by private parties to cross the river below the railroad bridge. Rising water soon carried it away but the people of the area gathered together and rebuilt it almost immediately only to have it swept downstream again in the spring of 1857, when a June freshet also carried the bridge at the foot of Ottawa Ave. away. Heavily used from the beginning, this bridge was also taken out by anjce jam and flood in the spring of '49. The ferry boat operation of John Dixon was put back into effect and was used until 1851 when again the bridge was rebuilt and raised another four feet higher over the waters of the Rock River. The 1851 structure was to last until 1857 when an accumulation of spring ice on Feb. 24, carried it away. During this time (in January, 1855) the first railroad bridge to cross the river was completed as a wooden structure placed on stone piers.

In May, 1857, James A. Watson started the erection of a foot bridge at the end of Galena Ave., but the local citizens thought this to be only a half-way effort. Watson, being short of funds to complete a full bridge, appealed to the citizens of the community for assistance and within a few days enough money was raised among merchants to erect a full-sized bridge. Finished during the summer of 1857, this bridge went down under the weight of two loaded wagons and eight or ten head of cattle.

Again, the bridge, now called the Eustace Bridge, was repaired only to be once again swept away by flood in 1858 with this same high water destroying the recently rebuilt free bridge downstream.

During August 1859, active operations were commenced in the erection of a free bridge at the foot of Galena Avenue; its cost was estimated to be $12,000 and it was named the Luckey Bridge after its builder, Z. H. Luckey. According to the "Dixon Sun" newspaper, it was "called the Luckey Bridge and was constructed somewhat after the style of the leaning tower of Piza and on the principle of a rolling prairie." This bridge lasted four months before giving way to ice jams, was repaired and lasted for a few more years.

A free bridge was begun in 1860 to take the place of the former toll bridges, but work was stopped due to lack of funds. "Free Bridge Parties" were given and proceeds added to contributions of merchants to make this structure a reality. A total of $13 ,000 was spent on this bridge and it was opened to the public on January 1, 1861, at what the local newspapers called a "big event" in the history of Dixon. In 1861 the lower bridge across the river disappeared from active existence and the following year saw an iron bridge built by the railroad company to replace the wooden structure:

The Dixon Telegraph" at that time stated that the bridge was rebuilt and repaired "without stopping a single train." On May 10, 1866, the middle span of the free bridge went down, was repaired and again, in 1868, was destroyed by high water and floating ice jams. Through all the years the Rock River had been crossed and recrossed with bridges, all the structures had been constructed using wood resting upon wooden trestles or piers. All the structures, also, had been either in part or wholly swept away by the treacherous waters of the Rock River.

It was at this time the general feeling among the people of Dixon that a truly lasting bridge should be Constructed; one that flood water, ice jams, floating debris or washed-out dams could not take out or partially destroy on an almost yearly basis. With this thought in mind, the Dixon City Council, in May of 1868 met and awarded a contract to construct an all-iron bridge to L. E. Truesdell. The bridge, using the "L. E. Truesdell Patent Iron Double Truss" method of construction, was to be over 656 feet long and would cost more than $80,000 to build. In a moving story concerning one of Dixon's greatest disasters, the "Dixon Sun" wrote: The Truesdell Bridge was completed and opened to the public on January 21, 1869, with "Father" John Dixon leading a parade across the Galena Avenue structure in celebration of what the residents of the community thought would be a bridge that would stand "for a lifetime and more." However, during the time of a baptismal ceremony just below the bridge on Sunday, May 4, 1873, the famed Truesdell Bridge collapsed, killing 46 persons. "It is no time, at such an hour as this, of desolation and woe, for us to discuss the question or responsibility for such a disaster. Hearts are too full of grief, eyes too full of tears to see the true weight of the horrible affair. This question must be answered but not knowledged now. Let us bury our dead peacefully, let us look up in trust to the future placing reliance upon the arm of Him who never forsakes His people in the time of trouble. We have no faith in the doctrine that Providence conunitted this crime. He made the rotten iron which can be snapped in the hand, but He did not put it in the bridge. God is too good for that, and loves His people too well to strike us all so grievously."

In the fall of 1873 the Howe Truss Wooden Bridge was built in the same location as the Truesdell Bridge by the American Bridge Company at a total cost of $18,000. It stood for 12 years and was replaced in 1884, after having been deemed unsafe for further travel.

The 1884 bridge cost the city of Dixon $35,000 and would last its inhabitants more than half a century. In the later part of 1937 this bridge became unsafe after years of use by both horse and buggy teams and, later, cars and trucks. It was finally condemned and demolished in the sununer of 1938 to make way for the present Galena Avenue-Abraham Lincoln Memorial Bridge span.

In 1920 work was started on a new railroad bridge over the Rock River to replace the iron structure that had carried train traffic over the span for 52 years since being re-done with iron in 1862. Constructed of steel, resting on 15 concrete piers and two abutments, it supported a single track and is still in use today. During the 1930 Dixon Centennial Celebration, the newly built Peoria Ave. bridge was dedicated as a memorial to the soldiers of Dixon and Lee County that had served their country in World War I. Built at a cost of $166,000, the bridge was a joint fmancial effort of both the city and the county.

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The Dixon Evening Telegraph 1 May 1951 -
One discouragement after another had followed each other in Dixon's efforts to span Rock River and to bring the northern and southern sections of the city into the limits of one united community.

Through the years before 1869, nine bridges, all of them more or less ill-fated in the struggle to withstand ice and flood, had crossed the river. All had been made of wood resting on wooden trestles which had collapsed like toothpicks whenever the river went on one of its frequent rampages.

It was with great hope and a feeling of confidence that the citizens joined together to celebrate the opening of the first iron bridge on January 21, 1869. Now, at last, they believed, they had a bridge which no flood could wash away. With much labor and expense, piers and abutments of solid masonry were placed upon substantial foundations made by driving piles below the gravel and changing the bed of the river.

The bridge was completed at the cost of $75,000 and was described as "a handsome superstructure wholly of iron, with the exception of the floors." Although it had five spans, each 132 feet in length, it was a continuous truss, each span dependent on the others. The road way was 18 feet wide, with a sidewalk on each side, five feet wide. The opening of the bridge to the public on January 21, was an occasion for great jubilation. After a severe test of its strength, the structure was accepted by the city, and all rejoiced that now they had, at last, a bridge of such great strength.

On the opening day a procession a mile long headed by John Dixon, foudner of the city, riding in a carriage, crossed the new structure. He was followed by other old settlers, the Dixon cornet band, the city council and citizens in wagons and carriages. No one on that memorable occasion, could know that a little more than four years later this same bridge which had been so well tested would collapse, taking a fearful toll in lives and property.

The great iron bridge of which Dixon was so proud in 1869 had a name variously spelled throughout its brief history. These variations have included; Truesdell - Truesdel - Trusdell and Truesdale. It is the first which is most often used in recording the history of the bridge.

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