Meridian Bridge

The Meridian Bridge spanning across the Missouri to Yankton.
Yankton's Meridian Bridge


Yankton's Signature Landmark
The historic structure most readily visible from Yankton's riverfront is the Meridian Bridge. It is notable as the first permanent river crossing in the Yankton vicinity and as one of the final links in the Meridian Highway, an early north-south route from Winnipeg, Canada, to Mexico City, Mexico. The vertical lift design was a typical period engineering solution to a typical problem of spanning a wide navigable river, and thus did not garner much attention in engineering circles in the 1920s. The region's population, however, considered it an outstanding bridge engineering accomplishment that greatly improved economic and social connections across the Nebraska and South Dakota border.

Bridge Boosterism
The Meridian Bridge was built under the auspices of the Meridian Bridge Company that was incorporated in 1919 by local civic leaders under the direction of Deloss B. Gurney, a prominent seed merchant. The businessman, motivated by a desire to ensure Yankton's economic future as a center of trade, wanted the bridge to replace a ferry and a seasonally operated pontoon bridge that limited transportation south from Yankton to markets in rural northeastern Nebraska.

The bridge boosters also supported the bridge as an improvement to the Meridian Highway. Indeed, the bridge company used the Meridian Highway in its name in order to elevate the bridge project above a local character even though the company had no official organizational connection with the highway. Established around 1911, the Meridian Highway traversed the Great Plains in a north-south direction and derived its name from the Sixth Principal Meridian, which it roughly paralleled.

The Final Toll
The $1.1 million Meridian Bridge was financed primarily by local capital at a time when it was increasingly common for bridges to be built through some form of federal or state aid. The Meridian Bridge, officially dedicated on October 11, 1924, was from the first a symbol of local pride, in large part because it had been conceived and built under local leadership. It appeared on souvenir medals and postcards. For many years, Yankton held the local nickname of "Bridge City." The community even considered December 1, 1952, a day of celebration when the wife of former bridge company executive Deloss Gurney paid the last toll and the bridge became officially debt free.

Meridian Bridge in its original configuration.  Note the toll booth, counterweights, and decorative railings.

Yankton Press & Dakotan

The bridge was built with a double deck in anticipation that the lower deck would be made available to a railroad, but the line never materialized. The double decking speaks to the optimism of the bridge company founders that they could attract a north-south rail line to Yankton. By the 1920s, however, the great era of railroad construction was over; many railroads were already contemplating abandoning unprofitable lines and consolidating parallel, competing lines.

The Meridian Highway Bridge Company agreed to sell the bridge to the City of Yankton in 1946 for $700,000. In 1953 after recouping the cost of the bridge through toll collection, the bridge was turned into a free facility and shortly thereafter taken over by the State of South Dakota. At the same time, the lower level which never materialized into a train route was converted to carry vehicular traffic, allowing one-way traffic on each of the two levels.

An Engineering Marvel
The vertical lift span of the bridge is based on the design originally developed by J.A.L. Waddell and John L. Harrington in 1894. Waddell and Harrington dissolved their partnership with Harrington starting a new company, Harrington, Howard and Ash, established in 1914. In January 1920, the Meridian Highway Bridge Company retained this respected firm to design the Meridian lift bridge. Unique to the Meridian Bridge is the fact that the lift span was designed so that it could be swapped with one of the other spans if the river changed its channel.

The bridge has undergone several rehabilitation projects including the construction of new approach spans, deck modifications and several structural steel repairs within its 76-year life. The most significant alteration to the bridge occurred in 1983 when the lift span ceased to be movable and the operating machinery, operator's house that was cantilevered off the northeast quadrant, and counterweights and cables were removed. The towers remain, defining what was the vertical lift span. The decorative iron railings were replaced with concrete barricades. The bridge retains its original configuration and is today distinguished as the only vertical lift span in Nebraska and South Dakota. The bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in May 1993.

Converted & Opened For Recreational Use
On October 11, 2009, the new Discovery Bridge was opened to traffic. The Meridian Bridge was closed and soon underwent conversion to pedestrian/bike use. In November 2011 it opened for recreational use. Hiking, biking, running or walking across the bridge is a popular outdoor activity in the Yankton area.


Bridges of the Missouri National Recreational River

Additional Resources

Last updated: April 21, 2020

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