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Our Rich History: Building bridges, ending monopolies — Newport commuters

by Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

Part 66 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

The opening of the Covington and Cincinnati suspension bridge in January 1867 marked the beginning of an era that witnessed a new metropolitan identity for Cincinnati, Covington and Newport. In addition, the construction of streetcar lines, tying the three cities together, further contributed to a growing sentiment that the two shores of the Ohio River were vital components in a single shared vision of municipal prosperity.

Soon, Newport residents desired their own direct bridge link to Cincinnati. Fortunately, a new railroad line being constructed between Louisville and Cincinnati would provide the answer. Nicknamed the “Short Line,” its official name was the Louisville, Cincinnati and Lexington Railroad (LC&L).

By April 1869, most of the route of the Short Line was completed. Stretching from Beargrass Depot at the head of Jefferson Street in Louisville, to a temporary junction with the Kentucky Central Railroad in South Covington, the LC&L began regular traffic on June 28, 1869. Trains made the 108-mile-long trek in four hours (“Covington,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, April 21, 1869, p. 1; “Covington,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, June 29, 1869, p. 1).

The 1872 Newport and Cincinnati Bridge. Courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte.

Rather surprisingly, the operating Short Line had still not determined where it would cross the Ohio River into Cincinnati. Three options were possible: 1) building its line to the Covington and Cincinnati suspension bridge; 2) erecting a new bridge across the Ohio River at Covington; or 3) extending its road to Newport and using a proposed bridge there.

The final bridge trump card was decided by the Newport city council, which acted aggressively in pursuit of the railroad. The council was convinced that a railway bridge would be the answer to a long-running vexatious problem Newporters had encountered with their city’s ferry monopoly.

From the 1830s until the 1850s, the city of Newport had filed suit several times to contest the Taylor family’s exclusive claim to operate a ferry to Cincinnati. In all of these cases, the courts ruled in favor of the Taylors.

Railroad and bridge advocates in Newport would receive a significant boost in September 1867, when opponents of the Newport ferry monopoly renewed their lobbying efforts against proposed higher ferry rates. As of October 1, 1867, the ferry intended to suspend their discount commuter program that had allowed “a man and all the members of his family, including servants,” to cross the ferry on foot for a pass of eight dollars per year, or in the case of single individuals, six dollars per annum. Instead, it announced that henceforth commutation tickets would be sold in packages of one hundred, costing $1.25 per packet (“Newport. The Excitement about Ferry Rates—Public Meeting in Regard to the Matter,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, September 16, 1867, p. 1).

Concerned citizens of Newport held mass meetings to oppose the ferry rate hikes. A citizens’ committee even met with Captain John Williamson, of Air and Williamson, the lessees of the ferry from the Taylor family heirs. Williamson claimed that the new rates were justifiable, as the ferry company had lost $4,000 over the preceding six months (“Newport. The Question of Ferry Rates,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, September 20, 1867, p. 1).

Instead, the citizens’ committee pursued a different plan, successfully negotiating a new commuter arrangement with both the Covington and Newport Bridge Company (crossing the Licking River), as well as the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge Company (crossing the Ohio River). On September 30th, the Cincinnati Daily Gazette announced that Newport commuters would be able to “cross the Licking River and Ohio River bridges to Cincinnati for one cent and a quarter each trip, by buying tickets in packages of one hundred.” Still, the news was only a partial victory, for the increased fares on the Newport Ferry would still be instituted, as planned, on October 1st (“Newport. Bridge and Ferry Rates,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, September 30, 1867, p. 1).

The night before the new ferry rates went into effect, Newport citizens convened at the Court House. It was described as “the largest and most enthusiastic” meeting yet. The citizens’ committee urged the public to avail themselves of the new cooperative tolls being charged by the Licking and Ohio River bridges. Believing the action of the Newport ferry to be “prejudicial to the interests of the people individually, and to the prosperity of the city,” it entreated Newport residents to pledge that “we, the citizens, will stand against and oppose the increase of said rates to the court of final resort, and that, in the meantime, we will pass to and from the city of Cincinnati by way of the bridges, and not by the Newport Ferry-boats.”

Newport residents responded with enthusiasm, purchasing—before eight o’clock on the morning of October 1st—some 16,000 commuter tickets for the Licking and Ohio bridges (“The Ferry Question—Large Meeting of the Citizens on Monday Night-Resolutions and Addresses,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, October 2, 1867, p. 1; “The Bridges Versus the Ferry Boats,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, October 2, 1867, p. 1).

At the same time, Newporters remained undaunted in continuing to fight the ferry monopoly and to seek more direct commuter routes to Cincinnati. In a November 1867 letter to the editor of the Cincinnati Commercial, the author (or authors) expressed concern that the exclusive rights of the Newport ferry stymied the growth and development of Newport. The monopoly, they stated, had a ripple effect on the whole city, deterring “persons from living in Newport, whose business is in Cincinnati.” Further, they argued that the post-Civil War era was witnessing a wedding of interests between Cincinnati, Covington and Newport. There must be a free flow of communication between the three cities, in an effort “to emancipate themselves from these shackles to their future progress.” “Great changes have occurred in Kentucky. The institutions of the State, are, therefore, likely to become more and more like those of Ohio, and free and unrestricted intercourse ought to be promoted with the growth of population” (“The Ferry Monopoly,” The Cincinnati Commercial, November 2, 1867, p. 3).

On Saturday evening, November 2, 1867, another mass meeting resulted in the emergence of a new organization called the “Anti-Ferry Monopoly Association.” Although enthusiastic and hard-working, the association proved no match for the power of the ferry. Neither the lessees of the ferry (Air and Williamson), nor the Taylor family heirs were willing to bend very far. In the end, the ferry would be trumped by a new railroad bridge.

The 1897 L&N Bridge. Courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte.

While the operators of the ferry and the anti-ferry monopolists battled over ferry rates, private forces in Newport had launched an effort of their own to induce the railroad to choose Newport. The Newport and Cincinnati Bridge Company (N&CBC), chartered by the Kentucky General Assembly in February 1868, was the result. A $600,000 corporation, with provisions to increase its stock an additional $600,000, the N&CBC was authorized to build a bridge from Newport to Cincinnati, “provided, that the said bridge shall be constructed so as not to obstruct the navigation of the Ohio river.” Further, the bridge company was permitted to lay railroad tracks over its span, and to collect “reasonable rates of toll” for all vehicles and pedestrians, “provided, that the rates of toll shall at no time exceed the rates authorized to be charged by the Covington and Cincinnati Bridge Company” (Kentucky, An Act to incorporate the Newport and Cincinnati Bridge Company, Kentucky Acts, 1867-68, p. 438).

On Saturday, March 14, 1868, the N&CBC opened its stock books and sold $231,000 worth of shares in a single day. As its charter stipulated that only $300,000 had to be subscribed before the company could officially organize, a reporter for the Cincinnati Daily Gazette felt assured that the difference would be “taken by this evening” of Monday, March 16th (“Newport. Newport and Cincinnati Bridge,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, March 16, 1868, p. 1).

Newport city council also forged ahead in its attempt to secure the LC&L Railroad for Newport. On Tuesday evening, May 12, 1868, the council approved two ordinances, one granting a right-of-way along city streets to the railroad, and the other awarding “the use of a portion of a street” for an approach by the Newport and Cincinnati Bridge Company. Probably as an enticement to the city, the bridge company informed the council that same evening that it would charge pedestrians $1.00 for 100 tickets to cross a planned walkway (“Newport,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, May 14, 1868, p. 1).

The stage was now set for the LC&L to cross over into Newport, and then to Cincinnati.

In August 1869, construction on the piers of the line’s railroad bridge over the Licking River commenced. And in March 1872, the Newport and Cincinnati Bridge officially opened across the Ohio River, with both toll pedestrian and wagon right-of-ways (“Covington,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette, August 17, 1869, p. 1; “Newport,” Covington Journal, March 23, 1872, p. 3).

In subsequent years, the Newport and Cincinnati Bridge was widened for streetcar tracks. When the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L&N) acquired the LC&L, the bridge became known as the L&N Bridge. As traffic increased, and as steam locomotives and electric streetcars became weightier, the original bridge was replaced by a newer one that opened in May 1897. By 1984, the railroad tracks were removed, and by 2001, vehicular traffic ended. Purchased by the non-profit Southbank Partners, it is now a widely popular pedestrian bridge known as the “Purple People Bridge.”

Parts of this article formerly appeared in Paul A. Tenkotte, Rival Cities to Suburbs: Covington and Newport, Kentucky, 1790-1890 (dissertation). Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1989.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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