By Stephen D. Bowling
In February 1911, the residents of Breathitt County were angry- furious. They were upset that a “tax” was being charged to all those who wished to cross the old wooden bridge across the North Fork of the Kentucky River at Jackson. The citizens united and approached the Fiscal Court about dropping the tax.
The Jackson Times, which was then edited by Ryland C. Musick, followed the proceeding very closely thanks to Musick’s position on the Committee of Citizens. The following is an article printed in the February 24, 1911 edition of the paper under a large black heading “FREE BRIDGE.”
“The citizens of Jackson and surrounding territory are heard discussing nothing but “free bridge,” and everyone whom you meet is saying: ‘That do you about setting the bridge free?’ Not even an election can stir up as much interest and enthusiasm as has the bridge question, and it is the only topic to be heard upon the street.
For about fifteen years, the toll has been collected on the bridge that spans the Kentucky River at Jackson, and just now it seems as if something will happen to interfere with the continuance of that practice. Every person who crosses the bridge pays one cent each way, and each wagon or vehicle, ten cents, while a person on horseback or for each animal, five cents is charged. All school children are permitted by the county to cross the bridge without charge except when going to and from Sunday School or Church when the normal charges govern.
Since the county has been collecting tolls from the bridge, it is said that over $60,000 has been collected. The bridge is each year let to some individual at the highest bid received, and in years has been rented out at approximately $5,000 per year. The county gets the $5,000, and the toll keeper the excess sum, whatever it may perchance be.
Seventy-five percent of the $60,000, it is conceded, has been paid by the citizens of Jackson, while about ten percent is paid by the citizens living in that part of the county who have to cross the bridge to get to Jackson, another ten percent is paid by traveling men, transients, and wagoners from other counties who have to haul their goods to Jackson, while five percent is paid by the other residents of the county.
According to the Fiscal Court, the bridge cost $15,000, and bonds were issued to raise that amount. They say that seven of these bonds are outstanding and have not been paid, about half of the $15,000 is yet unpaid, and yet they have collected from the bridge approximately $60,000. It is said the money derived from the bridge has been used to build bridges in the county where bridges are needed and to remodel the old broken down courthouse and to help pay for the jail.
It is not claimed that very much of the money was used on the pikes of the county. What the General Tax was used for and has been used for in the years past, during the existence of the bridge, has not been given out in the agitation over the free bridge, but all inquiries so far have been directed to bridge, bridge, bridge. We hear “bridge” when we get up in the morning, “bridge” when we retire at night.
While $45,000, of the money derived from the bridge, has been paid into the county by the citizens of the Jackson, not a cent, it is claimed, has ever been spent in improving the streets of the town, nor in building good roads leading out of town, nor is the building of bridges in or about the town, and even if the bridge is freed, about half of the expense in building it is yet to be paid.
The enthusiasm having been aroused to such intense heat, a mass meeting of the citizens was held at Jackson Friday night, to discuss what action should be taken towards freeing the bridge. The Court House was crowded to its utmost capacity and all the standing room taken. Men, women, and children gathered from all sections of the city and from points in the county where the toll tax has been so keenly felt and a full discussion was had of the situation.
A committee of eight lawyers, composed of Kelly Kash, G. W. Flennor, A. H. Patton, E. C. Hyden, R. C. Musick, T. T. Cope, Kash C. Williams, and Chester Back was appointed by the Jackson Commercial Club, at a former meeting, to investigate the legality of the collection of the toll by the county and report their findings at this meeting.”
The committee presented their findings, which showed that there was no public bridge in the state charging a toll for its use. The Fiscal Court met and voted not to stop the collection of the “crossing tax.”
The debate continued for several years until the bridge was finally “freed” just before World War I in 1918. The crossing from the old Myers Farm (South Jackson) to College Avenue was now the primary means of entering town from the southwestern side of the county. Highway 15 would later use this bridge when it was constructed through Breathitt County’s seat.
The old Jackson Bridge was torn down and twice replaced decades later, but the county is still wrestling with taxes. As much as things seem to change, they always stay the same. Yet, we struggle on. We do what we have always done when it comes to taxes: grumble, complain, pay them, and go on.
© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling