Volume VI, No. 1, Fall 1978


Article and photography by Daniel Hough

The expression, "I'll see you if the creek don't rise," holds much meaning for inhabitants of the Ozarks who must cross creeks and rivers for almost any travels. In many gatherings of people reminiscing about old times, someone will tell a tale of a troublesome crossing.

"About fifty years ago old Mr. and Mrs. Albert Claxton were driving home. It was raining pretty bad when they got to the Elk Creek ford in Wright County. Now that ford's tricky. You got to know just exactly where to cross or you'll get stuck. Albert saw the creek was coming down--you know, you look up the creek and see the rolls of water coming--but he thought he could make it before the water got to the ford. He'd crossed it hundreds of times. Well, he got stuck right in the middle. He was old and his wife was an invalid, so all he could do was go get help. He waded out and came to our house. I wasn't very big, but I remember. We got ropes and the tractor and rushed back there. While we was getting there, a big log come down the creek with the rolls of water. Mrs. Claxton opened both the car windows and somehow guided that log through the car. If she hadn't, it'd have hit the car and probably turned it over. When we got there she was sitting in water up to her neck. They took ropes to keep from being washed down the creek and went in to get her out, but we couldn't get the car out till next day when the water run down. The car was clear ruined.

"Then another time recently three car loads of us, kids and all, were coming to a family dinner when we got to the low-water bridge on the Osage Fork River--there at Pease Mill where the county road crosses. It had been raining all night and the river was up--plumb across the bridge. All you could see of the bridge was the two rows of swells where the water went over the little raised edges. My brother-in-law drove across first by himself and came back to say it was safe. We headed into that water, one car right behind the other following him. We started close to the upstream edge of the bridge. Water ran through the floor of the car and we could feel the car being pushed toward the other edge of the bridge. It was really scary to be driving straight ahead, yet going sideways right toward the edge of the bridge and twelve feet of raging water. My car was big and heavy, but the one behind me was light. I watched in the mirror and thought sure the current would push him over the edge before he could get across. If he'd gone over, there would have been nothing to do. They'd all have drowned. But we made it. In just the time it took Lester to cross and come back, the water had risen enough to make it dangerous. It was foolish of us to do it, but it saved about a thirty mile drive to go around."

Incidents like these often occurred in the hilly and forested Ozark land drained by numerous hollows, creeks and rivers. From the days of earliest settlement when the first settlers inhabited the rich creek and river bottoms, crossing rivers was frequently necessary, even in high waters. Roads were generally rocky soil, gravel and hardpan, uncomfortable to travel on but passable under most conditions. However, river and creek crossings were not predictable and not always passable because of frequent and sudden rises during rainy periods. Getting across the river demanded a secure method of crossing for man, horse or machine.


A paved ford is barely visible underwater (by Stephen Ludwig )

The various methods of crossing employed were dependent on the terrain of the site. Rock bluffs precluded any bridges except for large, steel-frame or suspended cable. Mud banks and gravel and sand bars necessitated clearing for a solid base. Banks could wash away and loose gravel or sand bars might shift with the next flood. Since the waterways are lined predominately by gravel, sand or solid rock, acquisition of these building materials was simple. Abundant hardwood forests supplied other materials, as oak lumber played a major role in many constructions.

A paved ford on the upper reaches of the Osage Fork River prevents washouts.(by Stephen Ludwig)


The first bridging of banks to occur was obviously natural ford crossings. A ford is merely a shallow spot on a river or creek, preferably narrow, with low solid banks for easy entrance and exit and a hard-packed gravel or rock bottom. In case of several possible choices, the road generally went to the best ford. An extra distance overland was easily justified by an easy crossing.

Fords often had one place that was firm enough to drive across. Those familiar with the ford had no difficulty usually, but strangers were not always so fortunate. Even with normal water flow, they might get stuck by heading in wrong, especially on longer fords which usually did not go straight across but curved to use the firmest footing.

No matter how good the crossing might be at any one time, fords were unreliable and unpredictable. The slightest rise in water terminated the usefulness immediately. Heavy flooding could wash out a once secure footing, leaving gulleys and an uneven bottom or deposit heavy layers of gravel. Since the footing was never surely safe, a simple crossing with heavy vehicles could become several hours of sweating labor as wheels bogged down in the newly washed-in sand and gravel. Winter months added a special danger because neither men, horses nor car engines could last long struggling through cold water.

Whenever wagons or cars became stuck, courtesy and neighborliness expected the nearest farmer to pull them out. During especially bad weather, the farmer might leave his team or tractor handy for aiding unlucky travelers. The farmer usually didn't expect neighbors to pay anything and would probably refuse to take money if offered, but he would sometimes appreciate some compensation from a stranger. A dollar was the usual amount.

People accustomed to crossing fords had various methods of crossing in high water. A common precaution was to loosen the fan belt to prevent the fan from throwing water on the engine and drowning it out. A car's engine will run in fairly deep water if water doesn't get in the oil. One particularly deep, but narrow ford, that some high school boys had to cross to get to school activities required preparation when the creek was up. Rather than miss out on the fun at school, the boys would bring ropes and extra cans of oil. On reaching the ford, they fastened the ropes to the front of the car. Two boys rode on the hood holding the ropes. After loosening the fan belt, the driver moved into the water. If the car got stuck or flooded out midstream, the two boys jumped to the other side and pulled the car on through. They checked the oil to see if it had water in it. If so, they drained the oil, put in the new cans of oil they had with them, tightened the fan belt and went on their way.


Above--Low-water concrete bridge on Brush Creek in southern Laclede County. The approach extends well past the present creek channel to prevent washouts of the road. Below--Same bridge site, being raised and widened for heavier use. Below right--Bridge at Orla totally engulfed by floodwaters.

For a permanent crossing often used natural fords were a poor choice.


The first improvement for natural fords was insuring a solid bed for traction. A slab of concrete in place of an often shifting gravel bed provided a secure surface for people, horses, wagons and automobiles.

The decision to put in a paved ford usually fell upon the residents living near the crossing. Those who would benefit from a paved ford donated time, money, materials and labor toward the construction.

During the summer months when the river or creek reached its lowest point, work began. Workers first dragged the pathway of the ford free of loose sand, gravel and mud with horse teams and double shovels, or with a tractor and scoop, depending on which was available. Next, they built wooden forms across the width of the river, between one and three feet deep. Large rocks filled the bulk of the form, while cement, sand and gravel, mixed by hand or tractor driven mixers, filled the remainder. If the water was running more than a few inches, they mixed the concrete thicker to set under water. After several days actual work and a week for the concrete to harden, the paved ford was ready for use. If the concrete set and settled correctly then no further work was required, barring mishaps.


The solid platform gave ideal footing compared to the natural river bottom, but the advantages ended here. No allowance was made for water flow, so water moved underneath the slab in cracks or over the top. Except for the driest weather water ran over paved fords, causing a layer of green slime to grow on the ford and make a slippery surface. On occasion, extremely heavy flooding would wash out around the ends cutting across the approach or washing it out altogether. Water underneath the slab could result in a shifting and breaking up of the concrete which meant a complete rebuilding of the ford. This often happened in winter freezing and thawing. Because the ford was nearly level with the river bottom, high water over the paved ford was the same as high water over the natural ford--impassable. However, as soon as the water receded, the paved ford was ready for use again.


One difference between a low-water bridge which is bank level and a paved ford is the bridge allows water to flow primarily underneath, while a paved ford has water flowing over the top. There are two different types of low-water bridges prevalent, with many variations in height, width and length. One consists of metal whistles through a sort of dam, the other of concrete slabs and pillars. Funding for concrete low-water bridges also varied depending on site selection. For a little-used crossing, local residents would often be responsible for all expenses. For a heavily traveled crossing, part or all the expenses might be paid by the county court through the road district tax fund. This fund was part of the county property tax levied upon residents of the county, and was used expressly for county roads and bridges. Both of these types of bridges have been built occasionally in recent times. Over secondary state roads and county roads the concrete slab low-water bridge is utilized when practical.

The construction of the solid dam-like bridge with whistles began similarly to the paved ford. The site was cleared of loose gravel and sand before setting the wooden forms. The height above the water varied from two to six feet, depending on the size of the waterway. The length was sometimes twice the actual distance across the river, with the extra length serving as an approach on each side. Since the bridge was usually level with the roadbed, no special effort was required to slope the approach. The width was approximately twelve feet for only one lane of traffic.

The whistles were set into place to accommodate normal water flow, with large rocks and gravel filling in the bulk of the form. Concrete was poured into the form and allowed to cure. After a week or two for settling and drying, the bridge was ready for use. Because of the nearly water level height and the limitations of the whistles for large amounts of water to flow, rises of only a few feet would cover the bridge, making it useless.

Though inexpensive, this type of bridge had several other limitations. Its length and width were restricted because the strength faded in long lengths because of poor supports. Obviously longer crossings required a more complex bridge.

The second type of low-water bridge used concrete slabs and pillars supported by enclosed steel beams. The use of steel beams was mandatory because without them the slabs would break apart of their own weight. This type of bridge allowed almost unrestricted flow of water underneath during normal river conditions and was generally more resistant to flood damage than the solid construction.

The first construction job was to dig the pillar sites down to bedrock and then build the wooden forms to contain the pillars. Steel mesh and reinforcement bars were used in the pillars for strength. Concrete was mixed and poured into the forms. Bolts projected from the top of the supports. The steel beams were manhandled into place on the supports and secured by the bolts. The beams were often scrap from junkyards or rails from a railroad. At best, finding the steel beams for a privately built bridge was a hit-and-miss situation, depending on the chance availability of scrap beams.

The next job was to build strong wooden frames for the poured concrete roadbed. Steel mesh and rebar stretched across the frame provided inner support for the concrete. The steel beams were enclosed in the wooden frame. In addition, each edge of the bridge had a raised concrete bumper to prevent vehicles from running off the bridge. Slots in the edge allowed water to drain off the top.


On each end a concrete abutment usually winged out into the bank, preventing water from eroding the approach to the bridge.

This bridge required more labor and care during construction than the previous bridge. However, the strength was greater and the danger of washing out was less since the bridge offered less resistance to water flow. Still the bridge had its drawbacks. Being only bank high, flooding was possible. Though water went over the bridge usually only a few times a year and for only a few hours at a time, high waters did prevent year round use. After each flood someone had to clear the bridge of accumulated driftwood. And there was always the possibility of a heavily loaded vehicle breaking a slab in two, sending everything tumbling into the river.

Probably one of the greatest difficulties with this type of bridge has been keeping the approaches to the bridges passable. High waters jamming logs against the bridge have often diverted the water to the more resistant banks. When the waters receded there would often be an impassable gap washed out between the road and the bridge.

Above--A slab and pillar of recent construction on a state-maintained road. (by Doug Sharp) Below--Floodwaters near the top of a slab and pillar concrete low-water bridge. Melt off from unusually heavy winter snows caused the late winter rise. (by Stephen Ludwig)


As the name implies, high-water bridges were always passable regardless of water height. They also had a higher weight limit and could be built as long as needed to cross any river. For a heavily trafficked road, high-water bridges were a must.

In the early 1900's two major types of high-water bridges were built--the cable suspension and steel frame bridges. Cable suspension bridges consisted of two steel supports on land which held two heavy wire cables. The cables in turn supported the entire weight of the bridge. More common than the cable suspension were steel frame bridges. These were a superstructure of steel resting on concrete piers both on the bank and in the river. Both kinds of bridges usually had wooden floors.

High-water bridges were much more expensive than low-water bridges and therefore required county funding. After a site was chosen for construction, bids were accepted for the steel, the concrete supports, lumber, labor and bridge supports. The work of surveying and the steel and cable placement generally went to professional bridge construction companies. A local sawmill operator usually contracted to cut and deliver green oak lumber to the bridge site. The labor of nailing down the floors and building approaches was open to local men.

Cable suspension bridge as viewed from cable supports. (by Stephen Ludwig)

Cable Suspension BridgeOne example of a cable suspension bridge spans the Pomme de Terre River in Benton County, Missouri. Though condemned for several years, the bridge is still needed and local traffic continues to cross cautiously.

The total suspended length of this bridge is 280 feet. On each bank, two concrete bases four feet square serve as footings for the steel frames which support the cables from which the weight of the bridge hangs. The bridge ends on both sides against a concrete abutment which serves to stabilize the approaches.



Each steel frame bolted to the concrete bases consists of two nineteen foot girders and a crosspiece twelve feet eight inches long. The two main cables, approximately four inches in diameter, are bundles of one-eighth inch wires wrapped together. Each end of the cable is securely anchored in concrete and draped over the top of the frames where they rest on metal plates. These plates preclude the possibility of friction cutting the wires in two. From these two support cables additional cables one-half inch in diameter hang down to the bridge floor. A total of fifty of these smaller cables are spaced four feet nine inches apart. The smaller cables are twisted securely about the larger cables, at the top and are attached at the bottom to 6 x 9 inch floor joists twelve feet long. These joists form the undercarriage of the bridge.

Above--Main cables are anchored in concrete. Below--Concrete pillar for the steel frame cable supports.

The bridge stands well above the river, supported only by twin steel cable

Condemned for public safety, the bridge is still used cautiously by local residents.

The bridge ends on a concrete abutment which serves to stabilize the approach.


Across the joists ten lines of 2 x 8 inch stringers are nailed on edge. The boards average ten feet in length. Next, 2 x 8's twelve feet eight inches long, are nailed to the stringers to form the floor.

4 x 4 inch posts, three feet tall, are nailed to the top of each joist and bolted to the outer stringer on each side of the bridge. Through a hole drilled in the top of each post a half-inch cable is strung through the length of the bridge, forming a safety fence to minimize falling or driving off the bridge.

A wheel track, consisting of three 2 x 8's for each wheel, is nailed down the length of the bridge. This track extends the life of the floor. The approach on the east bank has concrete sides extending thirty feet from the edge of the bridge. The roadbed is soil and gravel packed down by constant use. An additional twenty feet of concrete and rock prevent serious erosion from heavy rain. On the west bank, sixteen feet are sided by formed concrete and forty feet by concrete and rock.

Main cables rest on a metal plate above frame to prevent shearing.

Ten lines of 2 x 4 inch stringers on edge are nailed across floor joists.

Cable through posts form a fence for safety in crossing.

Posts were bolted to outside stringer, this one has pulled loose from wear.

Secondary cables are wrapped about the main cables.


Primary maintenance on cable suspension bridges was constant checking for frayed or broken cables and for loose, rotten or broken lumber in the floor. Immediate replacement was necessary for safety in crossing the bridge. Most frequently, a nearby farmer was paid to make minor repairs on the bridge as necessary.

Lambeth Bridge consists of three steel spans supported on four concrete pillars. (by Stephen Ludwig. )

Three lines of 2 x 8 inch boards create a wheel track which extends the life of the floor.

Steel Frame Bridges

Steel frame bridges are the most expensive type yet discussed, their greater cost a result of the materials used. Steel and concrete were employed in larger amounts than used in the cable suspension bridge. This greater cost was compensated by the greater structural strength of the steel frame bridge.

There are still in use examples and different variations of steel frame bridges built in the early 1900's, though most have been bypassed with modern highways. The Lambeth Bridge spanning the Osage Fork River is one that remains in use today. Served only by a dirt road, it still provides constant and safe passage for local traffic regardless of river conditions. The construction of this bridge in 1908 was typical of many like it.

During the summer months when the river was lowest, the bridge company moved in to set up a working camp. Workers piled steel awaiting placement while the surveyors made final plans for the site. Men brought in the heavy machinery which they needed for almost all the work.

The first step was digging the concrete pier sites down to bedrock. On land, the men simply removed the earth and set the metal forms in place for the concrete pillars which stood twenty feet above the ground.


Boon cranes raised power driven cement mixers to pour the cement into the forms. One inch diameter connecting bolts projected from the top of each pillar.

For pillars which stood in water, there was additional work. Workers dug down to rock in the riverbed to set the metal forms. Then after properly seating the form, they pumped out the water and sealed any leaks in the form. Then they poured in the concrete and allowed it to harden. Again, connecting bolts extended from the top of the pillars.

With the pillars in place the next step was laying the plates and girders of each span. A shorter bridge might have only one span, but Lambeth had three. Each span was identical. A metal plate was bolted to the top of the pillars. Next, the upright main girders were bolted to the plate and temporarily held in place. Bracing was installed between the upright main girders. Steel girders, 110 feet long, were connected to the main uprights, running the length of the span. Bracing was installed between the 110 foot girders. Four vertical girders and two vertical slats were attached to the 110 foot girders. Floor girders were bolted to the vertical girders and slats. Metal slats were secured through the junction of the floor girders and the vertical girders and slats. Crosstie rods braced the floor girders. Finally, diagonal slat braces were installed between the vertical girders and slats.

One man on the ground maintained a forge to heat rivets for securing metal. When the rivets were hot, he threw the rivets upwards to a man on the bridge who caught them in a pan. He then held a rivet with tongs and placed it into a hole. Another man flattened the rivet to secure it into place. They were so proficient that they never dropped a rivet or allowed one to cool before it was in place.


Parts numbered in order of construction

(1)Frame plate
(2)Upright main girders
(3)110 foot girders
(4)Four vertical girders Two vertical slats
(5) Floor girders
(6) Metal slats (floor bracing)
(7) Crosstie rods in floor (not visible)
(8) Diagonal slat bracing

Upright main girders were bolted to frame plate located on top of concrete pillars.


After all the steel was in place, the metal received a coat of paint. Then the bridge company packed up and moved out.

Another group of workers, usually local, built the approach at the same time the steel was erected. After laying out the dimensions, they removed loose soil with horse teams pulling double shovels. Using the pillars as an abutment for the approach, they positioned large rocks to provide a solid base and then packed gravel and soil down between the rocks. The approach sloped down from the bridge on both ends to the road level. More large, flat rocks were "rip-rapped", or layered along the sides to prevent erosion.

Only one span of the Lambeth Bridge is constantly above water.

Bridge companies traditionally identified their construction projects.

Junction between floor girders and metal slats as seen from bridge floor.

Side view of same Junction.

Floor girders are braced by crosstie rods.


Oak lumber was used entirely for the woodwork of the bridge. After cutting the logs into boards at a nearby sawmill, local men hauled them to the bridge site and stacked them. Cutting the lumber often took several months, owing to the availability of saw logs and the time needed to do the actual sawing.

Nine lines of 2 x 8 inch stringers were placed on edge across the metal floor girders, running the entire length of the bridge. Next 2 x 8 inch floor boards were nailed across the stringers. A line of 2 x 8's was also bolted to each side, of the bridge three and one-half feet high, serving as a safety railing. A half inch cable ran the length of the bridge two feet above the floor, also for safety. Construction of the floor was fairly simple though time consuming.

Overall view of Lambeth Bridge

Steel frame bridge over a small creek.

Side view of same bridge.

Bridge at Osceola over the Osage River. A massive structure, unused due to floor's condition and not repaired because of single-lane width.

Inscription on Osceola Bridge.

A single span steel frame bridge with steel stringers and wooden floor paved over with blacktop.


The main danger involved in any bridge building was sudden changes in river conditions. The one disaster which could hold up construction for months was a sudden flood, washing all the lumber downstream or washing out the approaches, sometimes resulting in several months delay to cut new lumber or make repairs.

Maintenance for steel bridges as on other bridges on local roads was often relegated to a nearby farmer. His job was to check periodically for loose or broken boards and replace as necessary. Steel frame and suspension bridges like these were built to last. If the approaches were kept in good shape, the actual bridge itself required very little maintenance. An occasional fresh coat of paint retarded rust. The wooden floor joists, stringers and the floor itself get the greatest wear. Though made of hard oak lumber which weathers extremely well, the lumber will deteriorate, requiring replacement every twenty to thirty years. The floor often becomes loose and weak spots develop before a new floor is installed. On a few occasions the rear wheels of trucks have broken through the floor. After such an accident, local users would quickly repair or replace the floor.

In spite of possible dangers, people still continue to use the available crossing because they save many miles and much time. And the creeks continue to rise and temporarily prevent people from traveling. Even today school buses cannot pick up all the children on the route when creeks are up. Yearly on highways and main roads better bridges are being built, old ones bypassed or torn down, but on the back roads the old bridges are still greatly needed. These spans of time have withstood the test of time.

Above--Last reminder of a bridge that was. Below--Highwater terminates the usefulness of a wooden low-water bridge.


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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