Private Toll Bridges Near Extinction

Mon August 25, 2003 - Northeast Edition
Pete Sigmund

Back in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, many bridges were privately owned. You paid your penny or nickel to a toll collector, perhaps went through a turnstile, and crossed to the other side on your horse and buggy.

Settlers were happy to use the bridges rather than crossing on a wooden ferry, especially when the waters swelled because of storms.

“Going back into misty time, the first toll bridges, and toll roads, were operated by local landowners,” said Neal Gray, director of government affairs for the International Bridge, Tunnel & Turnpike Association (IBTTA) in Washington, D.C. “They were taken over, or replaced, by counties and states.”

So, now, private toll bridges — such as private toll roads and ferries — are almost gone. Yet a few — 16, to be exact — carry traffic in various parts of the United States. They may be narrow and only a few hundred yards long, but owners and toll collectors are proud of them and generally anxious to tell the lore of their spans, which are reminders of the old days.

Over a Century Old

The Dingmans Ferry Bridge crosses the Delaware River between Dingmans Ferry, PA, and Sandyston Township, NJ. It will be 103 years old this November.

“There were three wooden bridges before this one,” said toll collector Ted Pollis. “The very first wooden one, for horse and buggies, was built in 1836. That one lasted until 1847 when a bridge upstream collapsed and came downstream and wiped this one out. That’s how the first one bit the dust. A ferry then went back into operation. The second bridge was built three years later, in 1850. That one lasted four or five years. A freak windstorm lifted it up and threw it into the water. Then the third one was built about a year later. It was built really crappy and it collapsed a few years later. Poor workmanship.

“Our present bridge was completed in November 1900. It was built by the Perkins Brothers, from the Horsehead Bridge Co., and is about 300 yards long, connecting Route 739 in Pennsylvania with Route 560 on the Jersey side. We have regulars who use it all the time. The bridge gets pretty busy during both rush hours. People cross it to go to work in New Jersey or even in New York City. The toll is 75 cents for cars, $1.25 for trucks. Bikers cross free. We have between 3,000 and 4,000 cars on a busy day.”

The Dingmans Ferry Bridge is now owned by the Dingmans Choice & Delaware Bridge Co.

The river has actually been crossed here since 1735, when Andrew Dingman, an early Dutch settler, started a ferry that ran on a cable over the water. If people needed to cross, they rang a loud bell and the ferry operator came across and picked them up.

“The town on the Pennsylvania side was first called Dingmans Choice because it was his choice to settle at this spot,” said Carol Phillips, secretary treasurer of the company. “There has always been a crossing here since his ferry. When a bridge would come down, they would bring the ferry back into operation. The present bridge was brought here after being dismantled at another location. It is a pin-hung wrought iron truss bridge with three trusses and a wooden deck.”

Phillips said she can’t give the length of the two-lane bridge “because of security concerns.” She added that the span is closed for inspection for one or two weeks every September “with a concern for safety and a strong outlook for the future.”

The company has 52 stockholders from many areas. Many are members of the Perkins family, which had moved the bridge.

The bridge has a special place in people’s hearts, both local and visitors, Phillips said, and added, “They especially enjoy the interaction with the toll collectors.”

Includes Drawbridge

Operators of tall-masted boats on the Inland Waterway call the supervisor of the privately-owned Margate Bridge, in Margate, NJ, on Channel 13 of their boat radios and ask that the drawbridge be opened to let them through. (They can also honk twice on their boat horns.)

“Sometimes we have eight to 10 openings; sometimes we don’t have any,” said Kathy Johnston, bridge supervisor. “It depends on the tide and things like that.”

The bridge openings hold up traffic on the bridge, which can be pretty busy, especially on summer weekends.

Does anyone cuss her out? “Sure! But this is a main waterway. We can’t help that.”

The drawbridge is the main part of the 2-mi. long structure, which also includes three smaller fixed spans and a causeway.

Built in 1932, the Margate Bridge is owned by the Hansen and Capaldi families, which purchased it at a bankruptcy auction in 1963. It had been previously operated by the Hill Dredging Co., one of the firms involved in developing the south end of Absecon Island in the 30s. Atlantic City, on the north end, already had bridges in 1932, including several for railroads.

The drawbridge was kept open (lifted) for seven years, from 1932 to 1939, and the bridge did not operate, because there were not enough cars to pay for maintenance.

The bridge’s parent company, Ole Hansen & Sons Inc., Cologne, NJ, was founded by Ole Hansen, a Norwegian immigrant who had worked for F.W. Schwiers Jr. Co., the company which built the bridge. Tolls are 50 cents.

“There’s a lot of maintenance to do,” said Roger Hansen, president of Ole Hansen, grandson of the founder, and a partner in the bridge. “We have a steel-and-concrete bridge that is over 70 years old and we have to keep her in good shape for another 70 years. We have a year-round maintenance crew of five people, an engineer on staff who coordinates inspections and also an outside engineer for inspections every other year. We just put new joints and a new deck on one of the bridges and worked on the foundation last year, besides installing a new electrical system on the drawbridge.”

Does he expect to keep going? “Oh, yeah. I think they ought to have more private toll bridges in the country. Private enterprise can do it better than the public. I’m absolutely proud to be part of it.”

A few miles away, another privately owned toll bridge, the concrete-and-steel Beesleys Point Bridge is more than a mile long. Opened in June 1928, and being rebuilt, it carries Route 9 over Great Harbor Bay, near where some of the early seafarers settled. The bridge first charged 25 cents. The toll has gone up to 60 cents. Present owners are Stephen Hankin, who is a lawyer in Atlantic City, NJ, and his partners.

Life on the Bridge

Private bridges can be a toll collector’s whole life. Larry Diamond, 56, now retired, collected tolls for 42 years where a bridge crosses the 100-ft.-wide Tug Fork River between Nolan, WV, and Pike County and Martin County, KY, (Kentucky routes 292 and 468).

“Three generations of our family have collected tolls,” Diamond said. “First my grandmother, then my dad, then my mother, and then I. I started by helping out my grandmother when I was nine or 10 and then got on up to being a collector myself.

“We lived in a five-room house on the old one-lane swinging bridge which opened in 1940. One end of our home was an office with a window, which you opened to collect tolls.

“The old bridge had two sets of steel cables holding boards and timbers. Its limit was seven tons. When you crossed, if you had too big a load, the bridge would sink and go up and down like on the ocean. It cost 15 cents per car and three cents for each passenger six years and up. It also cost three cents to walk across if you were over six. Trucks under 12,000 lbs. were 20 cents. At 13,000 lbs., they were 30 cents.”

The Big Creek Bridge Co. in Nolan replaced the swing span with a steel-and-concrete arch structure in 1963. Diamond continued as collector until retiring to live alone in a trailer next to the bridge. “I used to talk to people all the time on the bridge,” he said. “Now I can sit on my patio near where the old bridge was and talk or holler to passersby.”

Tolls are 25 cents per car. Trucks are charged 25 cents per axle.

Both bridges were a big improvement over a boat, which used to carry funeral parties across to the Kentucky side, where there was a large cemetery, back in the early1930s.

Used to Cost a Nickel

Louis Study, 63, collects tolls on the steel-frame Plattsmouth Bridge, which crosses the Missouri River from Plattsmouth, NE, to Miles City, IA.

“When I was just a kid, it cost me a nickel to cross the dad-burned thing on my bike,” he said. “They used to feel sorry for me for having to pay all those hard-earned nickels. Cars also were a nickel and it was a nickel a head for the driver and passengers. Now motorists pay $1.25 — no charge for passengers. Trucks are $2.75. If people complain about the charge, I tell them it sure saves the inconvenience of having to swim.

“A friend of mine was about 18 and I was probably 12. His grandfather called me and said, ’You know what happened to Dwayne? He tried to swim across the Missouri. He didn’t have a nickel to walk across the bridge. He drowned.’ I said, ’Oh my God!’”

Plattsmouth, only 20 ft. wide and 1,420 ft. long, was built in 1928 by the Plattsmouth Bridge Co. under Carl Schneider. The Schneider family has remained as major stockholders. Today, Schneider’s grandson, Greg, is president of the company.

“Before the bridge was built, the river was a real obstacle to trade,” Greg Schneider said. “We were blocked by the Platte River to the North and by the Missouri.”

At first, an old horse-drawn ferry, using a water-level cable anchored to cottonwood trees on each side of the Missouri, would bring people across. Then they opened the bridge in the spring of 1928. The Plattsmouth Bridge has been well traveled ever since.

“A private bridge is a unique business,” Schneider observed. “It’s profitable as long as there are no major repairs. We pay for upkeep out of retained earnings. We keep it very safe but the bridge is so old we don’t know how much longer it will stay open.”

Unique Distinction

The toll bridge across the Red River between Moorhead, MN, and Fargo, ND, built in 1988, has a unique distinction.

“It is the only bridge in this country in the last 45 to 50 years to be built with private funds,” said Mark Moore, bridge attendant. “If you know your American history, you know there were a lot of them in the early days, colonial days mostly. The people who use it are really thankful. It saves about a half-hour going to work if they live in Moorhead and work over in North Fargo.”

The pre-stressed-concrete bridge, owned by The Bridge Co. in Moorhead, is approximately 500 ft. long and 32 ft. wide, with a 5-ft.-wide walkway. The toll is 75 cents, or 10 tokens for $5.

“A lot of people here didn’t even know what a toll was when it opened,” said Moore. “It was a novelty around here.”

An earlier wooden toll bridge crossed the Red near here in the late 1800s for horse and buggies. It burned down. Some said it was burned down on purpose because residents didn’t want more people coming to Moorhead, which included numerous bars and other establishments.

Then a ferry started, and finally the present bridge was built.

The Bridge Co. is owned by Clifford Moore, president; Jacob Sigmund, who was a displaced person from Germany; and Jim Dixon. It carries approximately 2,000 cars a day.

“You couldn’t believe the red tape and pencils which we had to go through to build the bridge,” said Moore. “We had to go through 23 government agencies, including the Coast Guard because the Red River is classified as navigable.”

The three partners financed the $2.1-million structure by selling tax-exempt city of Moorhead bonds, and also raised money from private sources.

Moore said private toll bridges are a tough business, “We’re paying for the tolls but not making any money. I have toll attendants 24 hours a day, plus utility bills. We pay $30,000 real estate taxes to North Dakota and Minnesota, plus another $25,000 for insurance. We pay a school tax, city tax, and county tax. We’re serving the public, and saved the taxpayers $2 million and now we have to pay taxes on it. Government bridges don’t pay any taxes. This doesn’t seem right.

“When we built our bridge we were the fourth toll bridge in Minnesota. One of these, in the Minneapolis area, had been an old railroad bridge. The owner took the tracks off, charged tolls, but didn’t keep up the maintenance. We looked at buying it but decided not to.”

A Family Affair

The Grosse Isle Bridge over the Trenton Channel of the Detroit River in Grosse Isle, MI, is owned by Paul Smoke, president of the Grosse Isle Bridge Authority. Smoke’s grandfather built the bridge in 1913. The toll is $1.25 each way. Smoke declined to be interviewed for this article.