With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, crossing the Missouri River to connect and unify the U.S. became a priority. In 1854 a ferry service connected Omaha and Iowa, but a bridge was obviously the only way to ease crossing for large numbers of people and freight.
Railroads tried imaginative concepts, including an ice bridge in 1872 and a pontoon bridge in 1888, and though the Golden Spike at Promontory Summit (not Point), Utah, in 1869 supposedly marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad, it was in fact not finished until 1872 when the Union Pacific bridge connected milepost 0 in Iowa with Nebraska.
Still, a hopefully free wagon/pedestrian bridge was needed, and it wasn't fulfilled until the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben stepped up to the plate.
In 1882, a decade after the Union Pacific completed the railroad bridge across the Missouri River, active discussion centered around a wagon bridge. Apparently very limited wagon use of the railroad bridge had occurred with tolls ranging from 5 to 60 cents charged for a single crossing.
Actual construction of the first wagon/street railway bridge began in 1886 and the following year the Omaha & Council Bluffs Railway & Bridge Co. of Nebraska was incorporated. Its $500,000, 3,263-foot-span bridge connecting to Omaha’s Douglas Street opened Oct. 30, 1888, with Ben Murphy riding his horse across as the first toll customer.
Complaints were voiced in 1890 pointing out that the space between the trolley rails should be paved but were ignored. Beginning in 1922 and completed in 1924, what would become known as the Douglas Street Bridge was widened to 40 feet and discussion in 1935 called for additional bridges on Farnam and Dodge streets but with no action.
By the late 1930s it was pointed out that the huge tolls, purportedly over $1 million, had been collected by the Omaha & Council Bluffs Railway, which leased the crossing from the separate bridge company, and a further outcry for a free bridge began. The owners offered to sell the bridge but the city balked. However the concept was picked up by the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben who saw a great civic good which could be accomplished without using tax dollars.
In June 1938 Ak-Sar-Ben sold bonds to finance the purchase of the Douglas Street Bridge for $2,350,000 which allowed continued trolley use of the bridge without cost. Now named Ak-Sar-Ben Bridge, they also agreed to replace the bridge’s decking and only collect tolls until the bonds were paid off at which time they would give the bridge to Iowa and Nebraska and no further charges would be made as tolls.
Although minor objections came from Omaha’s mayor and the Nebraska governor, it was obviously a popular public boon. In 1939, the 500,000 board foot lumber planking was replaced with a concrete deck, sodium vapor lights had been installed and the entire structure painted. The same year Ak-Sar-Ben turned down a potential sale of the bridge to a private concern which would have netted them a $500,000 profit but would have meant it would have remained a toll bridge indefinitely, thus defeating their goal. By the end of the first year of ownership Ak-Sar-Ben had spent $300,000 in improvements but had still paid off $200,000 of the bonds.
In 1940 a separate nonprofit corporation was established and three years later half of the bonds had been retired. Only $600,000 in bonds remained in place by the end of 1945 even though still more work had been completed and in June of 1947 they predicted that by that fall the bridge would be toll free.
In 1933 another bridge, a W.P.A. project, had been completed, called the South Omaha Bridge which was also purchased by Ak-Sar-Ben. Projections showed that it, too, should be paid off and toll free at the same time as the Ak-Sar-Ben Bridge.
In September, the South Omaha Bridge had been paid off and on Sept. 24, 1947, at 11:30 a.m., George Langeferman paid the last Omaha toll and with 35,000 observers on hand the bridge was opened toll free and deeds given to Iowa and Nebraska.
Without tolls it was estimated that bridge use doubled the following year. In 1955 the remainder of an escrow account was expended for more repairs and in 1961 the bridge association corporation was dissolved. The Ak-Sar-Ben Bridge, with the exception of a small west pier, was demolished in 1968 with the I-480 bridge taking its place. Thus the first purely road bridge to connect Iowa and Nebraska also became known as “Ak-Sar-Ben’s greatest civic achievement.”