Dorothy Stewart still wants bridge open to traffic

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 30, 2000

Dorothy Stewart stands near the U.S. 80 Mississippi River bridge. (The Vicksburg Post/PAT SHANNAHAN)

A silver-haired woman standing not much over 5 feet steps up to the lecturn, pulls the microphone down to be heard and asks the five men before her, “When are you going to open the bridge?”

The scene has been played out repeatedly before the Warren County Board of Supervisors over the past year as Dorothy Stewart campaigns tirelessly to get the U.S. 80 Mississippi River bridge reopened to traffic. Supervisors even notice when “Mrs. Stewart” is not in the third-floor board room at the Warren County Courthouse.

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A retired county employee herself, Stewart has also become a fixture at meetings of the Vicksburg Bridge Commission, having missed only a handful in two years.

“They’ve given me any number of excuses to delay opening the bridge,” Stewart said. “But if you want something bad enough, you can do it.”

It was more than a year ago that, after months of debate, Warren County supervisors voted to place a non-binding referendum on the November ballot to get the public’s opinion of what the fate of the bridge should be.

The 70-year-old, county-owned bridge had been closed to vehicular traffic for more than a year, and commissioners had entertained thoughts of selling the span to Kansas City Southern Railway before the plan became public.

A public outcry that included Stewart’s voice commenced, and the proposed $5.5 million deal with the company that uses the bridge daily was called off.

When 14,121 Warren County voters went to the polls in 1999, 8,368, or 59.3 percent, of those casting ballots said reopen the bridge to light vehicular traffic; 33.8 percent favored a proposal to transform it into a park; and 6.8 percent said sell it.

Two weeks after the vote, supervisors voted 4-1 to instruct the bridge commission to reopen the bridge to two-way traffic.

That’s what Stewart wants.

“I think if enough people show interest in letting them know we expect them to do what they said they will, it will be accomplished,” she said.

Stewart was one of an estimated 20,000 people who turned out on May 20, 1930, for a ceremony marking the end of the two years of construction of the bridge. On that day, she made her first trip across the river on the bridge.

It was christened with two bottles of water, one from the Pacific Ocean and one from the Atlantic, marking an end to the ferrying by boat of passenger and rail traffic across the Mississippi River at Vicksburg.

Today, Stewart feels the significance of the day was lost on a 9-year-old child.

“We enjoyed it, but I don’t think we gave the bridge the respect that it deserves,” she said.

Construction cost estimates vary from $4.7 million to $7 million but, in 1947, Warren County purchased the span for $7 million and has operated the bridge as a private business since.

For nearly 43 years, the U.S. 80 bridge remained the single route between Vicksburg and all points west until the “Gateway to Mississippi” was opened. Today, about 23,000 cars cross the Interstate 20 bridge every day, according to a 1999 traffic count by the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

Despite winning the vote to reopen the bridge from the citizens and supervisors, Stewart, retired now after 23 years in the Chancery Clerk’s Office, continues her crusade hoping to again be able to drive across the river on the U.S. 80 bridge. Still, she goes to the meetings and still she asks her questions.

“Why are they (supervisors) letting the bridge commission ignore their instruction to reopen the bridge?” she asks.

District 2 Supervisor Michael Mayfield said that is a good question.

“I’ve tried to give them some space, but I believe it’s gotten to the point where we’re going to have to sit down with the commission and have a serious meeting,” Mayfield said.

Last year, Mayfield was one of the supervisors who picked up Stewart’s chant to reopen the bridge. While other supervisors declared their intent to vote as their constituents, Mayfield all but begged his to vote for reopening.

“I started this fight (to reopen the bridge) on the board of supervisors and I’m willing to take this all the way to the end,” he said.