The Clark Memorial Bridge carries US 31 over the Ohio River between Louisville, Kentucky and New Albany, Indiana.
Louisville, Kentucky post-World War I was only served by one automobile span over the Ohio River into southern Indiana: the Kentucky and Indiana Terminal Bridge, which connected Louisville to New Albany, Indiana. But there was no span connecting the bustling city to Jeffersonville. The first mention to build a bridge between the two principal cities came in 1919 at a New Year Day’s reception from Robert Worth Bingham, publisher of the Courier-Journal and the Louisville Times. But any serious discussion began several years later in August 1923, when the Board of Trade formed a committee chaired by U.S. Senator Frederic M. Sackett to explore options for building a new bridge.1
The Merchants and Manufacturers Association, along with the Louisville Automobile Club and other major proponents endorsed the idea for the bridge.1 Local communities and cities on both sides of the river supported the need for a new bridge, and newspapers ran favorable headlines.
In December 1923, a heated debate ensued on financing for the new bridge.1 Some suggested that tolls should be used to pay for the construction and retired when the bonds are paid off, while others desired a free crossing, unlike the Terminal Bridge. The discussion jeopardized approval ratings for the Louisville mayor, so the discussion was postponed until April 1925.
After conducting a study on the financial feasibility of a new Ohio River crossing, it was decided that the bridge would be financed with a toll that would pay for a $5 million bond issue.1 For the next eighteen months, debate ensued on both sides between those who backed tolls and those who did not.
In late 1926, the Kentucky General Assembly, along with Governor Fields, signed legislation that authorized construction of the toll span and the creation of the Louisville Bridge Commission.1 But this faced strong opposition, who persuaded the Louisville general council to submit the issue of tolls to the voters. In October 1926, the Kentucky Highway Commission stated that the Authority lacked any right to spend money to maintain a free bridge. When the votes were tallied for the issue, voters opted to build a tolled crossing.
The bond issue went to the elctorate in November 1927, but it failed to pass with a required two-thirds majority.1 In January 1928, the commission went to Stranahanm Harris & Oatis of Toledo, Ohio to obtain private financing for the span, with the bonds to be retired through tolls.
Design and Construction
Design work for the new Ohio River bridge began in September 1926, when the commission hired architect Paul P. Cret and Ralph Modjeski and Frank M. Masters.1 In April 1928, a four-lane cantilevered span was approved, along with a location between Second and Main Streets in downtown Louisville and Illinois Avenue in Jeffersonville.
Construction began in June by the American Bridge Company, who had submitted the lowest bid of $1.9 million for the substructure.1 Work was completed in October 1929 at a cost of $4.7 million and was known as the Municipal Bridge. Toll rates were 35 cents until New Year’s Eve 1936 when the rate lowered to a quarter.
Tolls were collected until 1946 when the construction bonds were paid off early due to traffic generated from the opening of the Indiana Ordnance Works at Charlestown.1 Three years later, the span was renamed the George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge after the founder of Louisville.
The removal of the tolls increased traffic on the span considerably. Adding to the burden was the suburban growth across the Ohio River into the farm fields of southern Indiana. By the early 1950s, the four-lane bridge was approaching capacity, causing congestion both in downtown Louisville and in Jeffersonville. The Terminal Bridge was similarly overburdened. Studies were conducted in 1952 and 1953 by Kentucky Senator Arthur Grafton, who also served as counsel to the Louisville Bridge Commission, which concluded that tolls should be reinstated in order to finance two new spans.1 The new bridges would be located in Jeffersonville and in New Albany from Louisville.
But the thought of tolls irked many as it had done in the past. With a stalemate in the progress of any new bridges to relieve congestion, the Courier-Journal wrote in 1955 that without new tolls on the Clark Bridge, there would be no funding for any additional spans.1
The problem was resolved in 1956 when the Interstate Highway System was formed, eventually leading to the construction of the Sherman Minton Bridge at New Albany and the Kennedy Bridge at Jeffersonville.
The Clark Bridge was rehabilitated in 1958. On March 8, 1984, the Clark Memorial Bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Minor rehabilitation work began in May 2010 with the replacement of handrails and sidewalks on the Kentucky approach, an the painting of the steel to a pastel yellow color.2 The total cost of the project, completed in October, was $2.5 million.
The span is host to Thunder Over Louisville, the largest annual fireworks display in North America, with the span closing from Thursday until Monday. The span is currently the only non-interstate automobile crossing over the Ohio River between Louisville and Indiana.
- Designation: US 31
- Crosses: Ohio River
- Bridge Type: Cantilevered truss
- Total Length: 5,746.5 feet
- Longest Span Length: 819.5 feet
- Deck Width: 38 feet
- Vertical Clearance Above Deck: 13.5 feet
- Kleber, John E. “Bridges, Automobile.” The encyclopedia of Louisville. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. 123. Print.
- Whitlow, Mike. “Major construction to begin on Clark Memorial Bridge.” WHAS11, 2 May 2010. 13 Sept. 2011. Article.