Northwoods Moment In History: The First Davenport Street Bridge

Aug 19, 2020

Most Rhinelander citizens take the Davenport Street Bridge for granted. It is simply something we pass over on our way into town. But the current bridge is not the first structure to span the river, and the first bridge in that location met with a tragic end. Historian Gary Entz has the story.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of vehicles cross the Davenport Street Bridge every day. Most of us do not give it a second thought and take it as a matter of course that a bridge over the Wisconsin River should be there. It was not always so convenient to cross the river, and the current bridge on Davenport Street is not even the first. There were two before it.

When the city was first founded, the only way to cross the river was by a trail that came out just north of Frederick Street. It was neither convenient nor easy to get wagons through that, so by the end of the 1880s the City Council decided to finance the construction of a bridge. Around 1890, the Minneapolis firm of I.H. Johnson was contracted to build a bridge over the Wisconsin River. It was a wooden structure and was built at a cost of around seven thousand dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $198,305 in 2020 dollars.

It is not entirely clear what quality of materials or expertise in bridge building went into the Davenport Street project. What is known for certain is that within ten years a timber on the east span had collapsed, and there were concerns being expressed before the City Council regarding the structural integrity of the entire bridge. In May 1900, the City Council received a stern warning that repairs to the bridge were becoming increasingly necessary and that a full assessment of the structure should be done as soon as possible so that needed upgrades could commence.

The City Council did nothing until early August 1901 when the original architect was called in from Minneapolis to assess the bridge. After examining the structure Johnson said the bridge was perfectly safe and not a danger to anyone. He did, however, recommend that seven new timbers be put in place to reinforce the bridge’s east span. The city was already seeking bids to replace the failed timber, and while the bureaucratic process was under way, it was just not fast enough.

On Saturday, August 24, 1901, Mr. J.J. Lyons, a Newbold area farmer, was driving a four-horse team and wagon over the Davenport Street bridge into Rhinelander. Just as Lyons exited off the east side of the bridge, Alex Moore drove another four-horse team and wagon on to the bridge from the west side. It was at that moment that the bridge snapped with a crack that was heard all the way into town. Lyons was safely off the bridge, but Moore and his team crashed along with the bridge right into the river. Moore was shaken up rather badly but was not physically injured by his fall into the water. Three of his horses similarly survived the fall, but the fourth broke a leg and had to be euthanized.

The bridge was a total loss, but the collapse offered the city the opportunity to build a new bridge out of proper materials rather than to simply shore up a rickety wooden structure. 

Image: Davenport Street Bridge in 1905