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12/25/2018 1:04:00 AM
COMMENTARY: Tolls are coming to the Evansville-Henderson bridge over the Ohio River
The toll booth that once stood at the north end of the Ohio River bridge between Evansville and Henderson. Courier & Press archives
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The toll booth that once stood at the north end of the Ohio River bridge between Evansville and Henderson. Courier & Press archives

Jon Webb, Evansville Courier & Press Columnist

The man from Missouri wasn’t happy.

Driving toward the Kentucky state line, he noticed a sign standing alongside the road, not far from the toll booth that waited at the mouth of the newly built Evansville-Henderson Ohio River bridge.  

“Walkers, 5 cents,” the sign read.

To cross in his car, it was going to cost 30 cents. That’s highway robbery, the man thought. Literally.

He decided he wasn’t going to pay such a ridiculous fare, and he told tolltaker George Stanley just that.

The two argued for five minutes, a line of cars growing behind them. A state policeman even pulled up, but the man continued harping about this grand injustice. Thirty cents to cross this bridge? The whole thing wasn’t even worth that.

Finally the policeman gave him an ultimatum: pay the fare or spend the weekend in jail.

The Missourian didn’t blink. His chest puffed with righteousness, he gladly rode to the clink. He spent Friday and Saturday night there before he finally agreed to pony up three dimes – plus $20 in court costs.

That was just one of many stories local tolltakers told between 1932-1941, the last time drivers had to pay a toll to drive between Evansville and Henderson.

Soon, they will again. Earlier this month, the I-69 Ohio River Crossing project team announced a preferred route for a new four-lane bridge that will stretch over the river. It’s projected to cost at least $1.5 billion, and with that will likely come tolls.  

The tolls

The project will be a lot different from its 1932 counterpart.  

For one, it’ll probably take a lot longer than nine years to pay off the new bond.

And in 2018, when robots are more gainfully employed than humans, there likely won’t be a tiny hut standing at the north end of the bridge, where nine men take turns toiling 24 hours a day, seven days a week, snagging change from irritated motorists. 

But toll-taking was far from menial work. A former Henderson mayor, L.L. Hurley, served as toll supervisor in 1941. And as war built and ultimately burst in Europe and the Pacific, and fears of covert Nazi attacks grew, local officials spoke of the group as our first bulwarks of national defense.

As far as I know, they never thwarted an attack from foreign invaders. But they did see some strange stuff.

Their job started on July 7, 1932, when a Henderson man named George Lucas (not that one) became the first man to pony-up a toll.

And while officials in Indiana and Kentucky promised motorists that the toll would soon go away, the toll takers toiled away.

Motorists blew past the booth, only to feel guilty and turn around. Some of the workers even saw their cars – parked beside the booth – accordioned by drunks.

They also weathered the same godforsaken jokes every shift. A horrific favorite was “any discounts today?”  

Finally, the big day came, and put them out of a job.

The ceremony 

On March 20, 1941, the last toll was paid. The final man to sling 30 cents? George Lucas.

The mayors of Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee -- Henry Schricker, Keen Johnson and Prentice Cooper – spoke at a ceremony packed with hundreds of area residents.

“While Evansville and Henderson will be the immediate benefactors, all the great middle-west, the southland, the northern parts of the nation will enjoy the results,” Johnson said that day.

The occasion even drew a telegram from President Franklin Roosevelt.

“I hope this is the beginning of more toll-free bridges,” Roosevelt said in part.

And it was. Until now.

Related Stories:
• Evansville business execs to I-69 project team: Keep U.S. 41 bridges open, toll free
• I-69: Looking ahead - 2019 work will focus on Martinsville area

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Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR

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