The bridge with no name and a national tragedy


by Doug Proffitt

Posted on November 22, 2013 at 10:08 AM

Updated Friday, Nov 22 at 11:20 AM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11)-- Another sunset drops past the fifty year old steel of the Kennedy Bridge.

Right next to it, history is repeating itself---fifty years later--- with a brand new Ohio River bridge coming out of the water.

In the spring of 1961, there was a wide open space in the Ohio River, no bridge. The interstate system was waiting to be connected.

The Kennedy took three years to build and was finished at a cost of ten million dollars.

By November of 1963, the bridge was finished, ready to go but sitting empty,  blocked from car traffic, and just weeks away from its scheduled dedication.

But as Louisville historian Tom Owen found in early November one thing had been forgotten, “So we got a name for the new Sherman-Minton Bridge, but for the life of me, we get to Saturday November 16th and the Courier Journal writes an article, kinda of throwing up the stink, hey, we're having a dedication in early December on this bridge and we don't have a name for it, somebody suggest a name, what are we going to name it?”

So there it stood, with no name and no tolls.

WHAS-TV was the only station in Louisville using film to cover news. The crews got into a boat and floated around and under the bridge. Concrete was lifted from the ground to the unfinished roadway above  (I-65) and then poured manually  out of a container and filled into the steel grids. 

Just weeks before its December dedication ceremony, Kentucky and Indiana were left scrambling for a name, when a national tragedy on November 22nd would etch it into stone.

WHAS 11 News followed JFK's visits to Louisville well before he was in the White House.

In 1956, then Senator Kennedy pulls up in a car.  He has arrived to the Ursuline College campus on Lexington Road.

The WHAS film shows him shaking hands everywhere and then speaking to an assembly of all very thrilled young female Catholic students in the main hall at Ursuline.

Eric Roorda, a Bellarmine University history professor, studies Kennedy and watched the WHAS11 film, “Louisville, forty percent of the city's population was Catholic. Good, solid Democratic coalition.”

Four years later on Louisville's 4th Street near the Ohio Theatre, October 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy is now campaigning to be President. He's in a convertible waving. The crowds so thick, his police escort said he ran over people's feet.

That night, he's greeted by more giant crowds outside the Seelbach and moves forward to shake hands and sign autographs. He told the crowd, “Whenever we feel tired and a little down, we come to Louisville.”

Two years later as President, Saturday afternoon October 13, 1962, one year before his assassination, Kennedy arrives on Air Force One at Standiford Field to campaign for Kentucky Democrats. He's greeted by families and six high school bands then talks to the crowd.

"I want to thank all of you for coming to this airport … I want you to know that we're coming here to this city and state to elect Democrats to the US Senate and Congress."  Eric Roorda of Bellarmine said, “The President had done his homework. He was citing back to the crowd the deep losses that past popular presidents had taken in off year elections.”

His only trip to Louisville as President wrapped up with a trip to the regular Sunday morning mass at St. Mary Magdelen Church on Brook Street.

Boarded up now, Father Jack Hanrahan was inside the church that day. “It was a great honor just to be here. It was kind of a thrill and happy that he was here and edified to go out of his way to get to church and that's what he was doing he was going to mass on Sunday.”

The pew where Kennedy sat is now on display inside the Maloney Center.

And Father Jack remembers the atmosphere inside the church that day, “There was no too doo. They just greeted him and said they're praying for him.”

Kennedy's Air Force One took off on that rainy Sunday morning.

Those Louisville prayers lasted one year.

On the day of his assassination, the Louisville Times special afternoon extra showed the headlines and Mayor William Cowger gave a message on WHAS-TV, “On behalf of all the citizens of Louisville, I wish to express our deep shock upon learning of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.”

Louisville crowds headed to the Cathedral of the Assumption for candlelight services.

Fourteen days later the ribbon was cut by the governor of Indiana Matthew Welsh and Kentucky Lt. Governor Wilson Wyatt on the I-65 bridge, now with a name. Wyatt said at the time, “He led a very vital and useful life. He gave his life for all of us. Nothing could be more appropriate that there should be a living memorial one that has vitality and usefulness for all of us. Now dedicating the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial Bridge, dedicated to a better and greater Indiana and Kentucky and Ohio Valley.”


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