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Hometown history: Cass Street bridge construction

Cass Street Bridge construction during the final stages in 1939.

Eighty years ago, on Sept. 23, 1939, the $1.5 million Cass Street Bridge over the Mississippi River at La Crosse was dedicated.

Thousands of people celebrated with great fanfare that day.

The city was dressed up to the hilt. Among the decorations along the parade route was this banner, specially made for the day. Five feet long and nearly three feet wide, it was one of dozens that hung over the city’s streets that day. The banner is made of deep blue linen and features a silk-screened yellow image of the new bridge across the center.

Bridge celebration

More than 60 of these special banners flew over La Crosse 80 years ago to celebrate the opening of the Cass Street Bridge.

The banner was provided by the Semsch Display Service, located at 127-129 Pearl St. Semsch (today, the business is known as Nelson Flag and Display) provided 60 overhead arches with banners for the parade route and additional decorations for the bridge, the review stand and Riverside Park, as well as storefront displays throughout downtown, all for $947.10.

The parade was the first of the day’s festivities, beginning at 9 a.m. It featured nearly a hundred units, with bands from the city schools, Bangor, Galesville, West Salem, Viola, Cashton, Caledonia and Spring Grove high schools, the college band and several drum and bugle corps. Parade floats built by Doerflinger’s Department Store and the town of Hokah won the $50 prizes for first place in their categories.

La Crosse Mayor Joseph Verchota, Wisconsin Gov. Julius Heil and other dignitaries spoke to 15,000 people at the dedication ceremony at the bridge approach. After the ribbon-cutting, long lines of cars crossed the bridge in both directions, led by Gov. Heil.

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Meanwhile, the old wagon bridge opened its swing span for river traffic, never to carry automobiles again. The La Crosse Plugs, a local booster organization, carried a symbolic coffin onto the old bridge and tossed it into the river. Demolition of the wagon bridge began that week.

Afternoon activities included boat races, water sports, a band concert at Riverside Park and a Native American powwow. The celebration ended that evening with a lighted Venetian boat parade and a huge fireworks exposition.

Today, the 80-year-old silhouette of the bridge on this banner is still recognizable. That profile changed in 2004, when the adjacent Cameron Street Bridge, with its high arch, was completed. The designs of the two bridges nicely complement each other, and the celebrants of 1939 would most likely approve.

This object and other artifacts can be viewed in the La Crosse County Historical Society’s online collections database.


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