Q. In Sunday's Belleville News-Democrat, your editorial said there used to be a bridge named for veterans in St. Louis. What happened? Can you make like Paul Harvey and give us "the rest of the story"?
-- Bill Malec, of O'Fallon
A. Asking me to show my age again, eh? Alas, I suppose that's one of the blessings and curses of being such a longtime veteran here trying to span the generations.
Before the Poplar Street Bridge was even a gleam in some engineer's eye, I remember my dad battling his way across the Veterans Bridge when our family made its forays across the Mississippi.
The city of East St. Louis had it built for two reasons. For drivers, it provided much-needed relief for drivers trying to get across the river. Besides, they reasoned, the Eads, MacArthur and McKinley bridges had been built primarily for trains, not cars.
But East St. Louis also saw dollar signs. They estimated the bridge's tolls could bring in $1 million in revenue every year. So the city sold $9.4 million in revenue bonds to finance the new span, which was completed in 1951.
I'm sure it was an engineering marvel at the time, and drivers celebrated the eased congestion with a sigh of relief. As a boy, however, I remember harrowing journeys on a bridge with narrow lanes, hills, dips and turns, while being surrounded by those claustrophia-inducing girders. If you came at peak hours, you could be sitting for what seemed hours in the hot sun waiting for the lines to snake through the toll gate. God forbid there be an accident or stall.
Still, it was the best thing available at the time -- and East St. Louis profited handsomely, raking in $2.4 million in tolls annually by 1966. But you know what happened next: The newer, wider, smoother -- and free -- Poplar Street Bridge came along in 1967 to take I-55/70 across the river. Traffic and revenue from the Veterans plummeted, dropping nearly 80 percent to about a half million in 1972. With no money to pay for repairs, the bridge began to deteriorate.
And, here's the big change for you: After Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, East St. Louis -- which had undergone its own demographic changes -- renamed the bridge in the early 1970s to what we call it today: the Martin Luther King Bridge.
The name stuck through all of its troubles during the 1970s and '80s. In 1974, East St. Louis defaulted on its payments, eventually leaving bondholders with a 69-cent loss on every dollar they had shelled out to buy the investment.
When the city finally could no longer pay for the bridge's upkeep, the state took over jurisdiction on March 30, 1987. The following year, the bridge was closed for 14 months for a massive $26 million renovation. The toll booths were removed.
As you might expect, the name change rankled many, who said it was a slap in the face to the brave soldiers who fought and died for the country. In fact, shortly after the state took control, former state Rep. Ron Stephens said he was going to push to rename it the M.L. King-Veterans Bridge.
"By first naming something after them, then having the name removed is a disgrace to their memory," Stephens said at the time. "I've talked to some of my black urban friends and all agreed with me that to take Dr. King's name off it would do him dishonor. But I've found no one who objected to restoring the name Veterans to the bridge."
Apparently that wasn't quite true. The idea went nowhere.
"He's always going to do something," East St. Louis' late state Sen. Kenneth Hall said of Stephens at the time. "He must lay awake at night thinking things up. He never ceases to amaze me."
So, right now, the area's only Veterans Bridge is the twin five-lane Veterans Memorial Bridge structures that carries Missouri 364 (Page Avenue Extension) across the Missouri River into St. Charles County. Whether the new bridge will bring the name closer to home again after 40 years remains to be seen.
Q. Why was the road deck for the MacArthur (free) Bridge removed? It surely is still in good structural shape since it handles the bulk of the rail traffic over the river.
-- Don Kaiser
A. With its harrowing twists and turns and lack of connections to major highways, the MacArthur eventually became a commuting nightmare after it opened to drivers in 1917. Calling it "unsafe and unmaintainable," St. Louis Mayor Vince Schoemehl closed it to drivers for good at 4 p.m. Aug. 5. 1981.
Joe Rosenthal won a Pulitzer Prize for his legendary shot of the American flag being raised on Iwo Jima. Why, ironically, had he been rejected as a photographer by the U.S. Army?
Answer to Sunday's trivia: When looking to title his latest film in 1977, Woody Allen reportedly very nearly chose "Anhedonia" -- a psychological term defined as the inability to experience pleasure. Finally, after trying "Anxiety" and "Alvy and Me," he settled on "Annie Hall."
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or firstname.lastname@example.org