Between the 1850s and 1880s, the Wisconsin River was a primary transportation route for riverboats and lumber rafts. That’s why all of the bridges on the lower Wisconsin River had movable spans or sections that could be lifted or rotated. The “free” Muscoda Bridge, built in 1929, was a great example of a bascule bridge. A bascule bridge – also referred to as a drawbridge or a lifting bridge – is a moveable bridge with a counterweight that continuously balances a span, or leaf, throughout its upward swing to provide clearance for boat traffic. It was “free” because it replaced a toll bridge that was built in 1868.
An article in the Boscobel Dial newspaper dated December 18, 1929 stated that, “there was much ‘whoopee’ in Muscoda over the completion of the new bridge. Citizens and farmers donated $1,500 to defray the expenses of the day’s program, which included free dinners, free shows, free dances and an added feature was a Santa Claus in a sled loaded down with gifts of toys and candy.” Over 5000 people attended the festivities.
The article described the bridge as measuring “1092 feet long from abutment to abutment, 20 feet wide, of reinforced concrete and is lighted with 16 GE units. The counterbalance used in the lift span is 70 feet long, weighs approximately 200 tons. The contract price was about $155,000. With the approaches and cost of land taken by the state for these approaches, the cost will amount to approximately $180,000. The cost is divided between Grant and Richland county and town of Muscoda in Grant county.”
The interesting thing about this bascule bridge is why it was built in the first place. The shifting sands of the lower Wisconsin River meant that the main channel may or may not have flowed beneath the movable span. Plus, the Army Corps of Engineers had long ago given up on navigating the shallow lower Wisconsin. It’s unlikely that the movable span was ever lifted except for ceremonial purposes.
According to the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER WI-104), along the Lower Wisconsin there were initially no plans for improvements other than dredging and the clearing of snags. This soon proved to be inadequate. In 1868, the Corps began to experiment with wing dams and dredging to sluice out a 6-foot deep channel. By 1880, the Corps had completed 157 dams totaling over 76,000 feet (23 km), mainly in two sections: between Portage and Prairie du Sac and between Lone Rock and Boscobel. But the wing dams also proved inadequate and steamboats were not willing to risk the passage. In 1887, the Corps recommended to stop this method of improvement, effectively closing the Lower Wisconsin to commercial traffic.
So if the Army Corps of Engineers gave up in 1887, then why build a bascule bridge?
Apparently, the federal government still considered the lower Wisconsin a navigable waterway and a law remained on the books until the 1950s (Wisconsin DOT Report).
Wendall Smith, retired editor of the Muscoda Progressive recalled that when the Blue River bridge was replaced in 1958, Senator Bill Proxmire was involved in getting that law removed so that the bridge could be built without a moveable span.
That would make sense since in the 1950s, the movable part of the Muscoda bridge was dismantled. In 1990, the bridge was replaced with a modern concrete structure, forever ending the era of riverboat traffic on the lower Wisconsin River. If anyone has more information about the bascule bridge at Muscoda please leave a comment below.