Why The Meridian Bridge Had To Be Preserved

The Meridian Bridge in January 2012.

Why was it important to preserve the Meridian Bridge?

It was only three years ago that the community debated the future of what is arguably Yankton’s most recognized architectural feature. Opinions ran the gamut. I can’t tell you the number of people I would talk to that thought the bridge should be blown up with dynamite.

I could never understand that sentiment.

In case you’ve forgotten the conversations that took place in 2009, here is a snapshot reminder. I covered this September City Commission meeting when commissioners were in the process of negotiating a contract with South Dakota to hand over ownership of the bridge to Yankton once the conversion was complete:

Citizens who offered their thoughts to the commission on the subject were about equally divided on whether they approved of the project and the stipulations of the agreement currently being negotiated with South Dakota.
“I don’t think we should own the bridge,” Mike Welch told commissioners, citing his belief that it will be more costly than they anticipate.
“When you drive across the new Discovery Bridge, you’re going to be looking at a heap of rust,” added Garry Moore, a former state legislator. “You spoil the view of a perfectly good river.”
He said the city needs to consider the costs of inspecting the bridge and what kind of liability it assumes in taking ownership of the structure.
“I think there’s a lot of homework that needs to be done on the part of all parties involved in relationship to whether the state or the city wants to take over ownership and liability on that bridge,” Moore said.
Larry Jones said he wants the federal stimulus money to go unspent so his grandchildren are not saddled with the costs of the bridge conversion.
“There is no support out in the community (for spending stimulus money on this project),” he stated. “I know there are certain groups that want to save it. That’s fine. I understand that. But the vast majority are against spending the money. I don’t care where the money comes from. The stimulus money is still our money.”
Rep. Bernie Hunhoff (D-18) said the benefits of the project are going to be so big that enormous effort should be undertaken to resolve any obstacles.
“I can’t say how many towns I’ve been in where they were struggling to find an identity — something that sets them apart from all the other nice towns throughout America,” he said.
The Meridian Bridge, the trails that are being planned for the Nebraska side of the Missouri River that would connect the bridge with the Gavins Point Dam, as well as the extensive trail system already on the South Dakota side of the river would be that “something,” Hunhoff explained.
Jim Means said the project would solve a problem the city has struggled with for decades: How can the millions of visitors to the Lewis and Clark Lake be lured into the community to shop and spend money?
“This is our perfect opportunity to bring a few people into town,” he said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for the community.”

Of course, all of that is behind us now. The Meridian Bridge was converted into a pedestrian trail, and, while there are a few people who still complain it is a rust bucket, I hear almost universal praise for what an asset it is to the community.

I’ve been on the bridge in rain, snow and wind — early in the morning and late at night — and I am almost never alone. The community has largely embraced the bridge and uses it equally for exercise and for taking in the breathtaking views the structure offers.

But now let’s return to my opening question: Why was it important to preserve the Meridian Bridge?

I think Edward T. McMahon sheds some light on the issue in a post at The Atlantic Cities:

If I have learned anything from my career in urban planning, it is this: a community’s appeal drives economic prosperity. In 2010, the Knight Foundation teamed up with Gallup pollsters to survey 43,000 people in 26 cities (where Knight-Ridder had newspapers). The so-called Soul of the Community Survey was designed to answer questions about why residents love where they live? What attracts people to a place and keeps them there?

The study found that the most important factors that create emotional bonds between people and their community were not jobs and the economy, but rather “physical beauty, opportunities for socializing and a city’s openness to all people.” The Knight Foundation also found that communities with the highest levels of attachment also had the highest rates of gross domestic product growth and the strongest economies.

Place is more than just a location on a map. A sense of place is a unique collection of qualities and characteristics – visual, cultural, social, and environmental – that provide meaning to a location. A community’s unique identity also adds economic and social value. To foster distinctiveness, cities must plan for built environments and settlement patterns that are both uplifting and memorable and that foster a sense of belonging and stewardship by residents.

What better example of physical beauty and an opportunity to socialize does Yankton have than the Meridian Bridge trail? What better example of what makes Yankton unique do we have than the longest footbridge in the U.S. to connect two states? And not only is it a bridge, it’s a double-decker bridge.

But there is something even more important about the Meridian Bridge that I don’t think enough people recognize.

Let’s go back to the McMahon post:

Arthur Frommer, one of the world’s leading travel experts and founder of the well-known travel guide company, says that among cities and towns with no recreational appeal, those that preserve their past continue to enjoy tourism. Those that haven’t, receive almost no tourism at all. Frommer has been quoted as saying,“Tourists simply won’t go to a city that has lost its soul.”

The Discovery Bridge as seen from the top deck of the Meridian Bridge.

In many ways, the Meridian Bridge is a part of Yankton’s soul. Local leaders dreamed up the idea to build the bridge and replace the pontoon structure or dependence on ice to travel between Nebraska and South Dakota. Locals invested in Meridian Highway Bridge Company stocks, and the bridge was completed in 1924. For 29 years after the opening of the bridge, more than 5 million vehicles paid a toll as they crossed it to fund the structure.

It was on Sept. 8, 1953, that the City of Yankton declared it would pay off the bridge and turn its title over to the highway departments of Nebraska and South Dakota. For decades following that, millions more travelers crossed that bridge.

How many people have you talked to who may not remember much about Yankton, but they remember being a little scared as they drove over the top deck of the Meridian Bridge?

That bridge is a big part of Yankton’s soul. If we had allowed it to be prematurely destroyed, we would have been surrendering a big part of the community’s health and future.

A lot of people recognize that now. However, I’m glad that there were some who recognized that as a new bridge was planned and the Meridian Bridge’s future was decided.


UPDATE: I guess my fellow South Dakota blogger, Cory Heidelberger at the always-insightful Madville Times, thinks I’m on to something. I’m really flattered to be given precious space on one of my favorite blogs. Please take the time to read his thoughtful remarks on this subject here. (OK, I won’t lie. I just want you to have to read how I posted “brilliantly” about the Meridian Bridge.) 🙂

One thought on “Why The Meridian Bridge Had To Be Preserved

  1. I am travelling in Iowa. While travelling, I always take the side roads and check out the small towns. I can tell you which ones have soul, and it has nothing to do with the size of the town.

    Dubuque is great! It’s a river town, founded in the 1830s, and has maintained a great deal of the original architecture. You won’ t find another town like it. I will go back some day, to check it out more carefully. Population, 57,500.
    Gravity, a real Iowa town, made me laugh out loud. They have a town sign that says: “Gravity – We’re down to earth people. If Gravity goes, we all go.” Hilarious, right?! Pop. 238.

    Many Iowa towns have central squares that the town was built around. Some of those squares a small parks, but others house the courthouse. That courthouse is often around 100+ years old and awesome. The buildings around the square are usually the oldest too, ornate, false fronted brick. One town has razed the old courthouse and a building less than 40 years old sat there. So disappointiing and uninteresting. Ugh.

    Landmarks like the Meridien Bridge make a big impact! As Nathan said, that’s why people come back to the town to visit. Every SD town needs to preserve their older architecture.

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