Essay / Misc.

How My Dad Built an Illegal Bridge, and It Was Good

This Father’s Day, I’m remembering something my dad did back in the summer of 1991. He illegally repaired a county bridge and became a local hero. For his neighbors in Missouri, it became the story of a determined small businessman beating city hall with a bulldozer and a few tons of gravel.

Dad owned a canoe rental in Crawford County, Missouri, a few miles off Route 66. He had retired early from a hectic job with a California utility company and moved back to his birthplace to make a living by putting tourists into canoes on the Meramec River. But in the mid 1980s, he had the idea that tourists might enjoy themselves more in whitewater rafts, even though the Meramec is more green than white; a calm, scenic river without a hint of any rapids. “Let’s face it,” he told the newspapers, “Most people come out on the river for a social experience –that’s why you often see them tie their canoes together. Six people in a raft is a made-to-order party, and it’s a lot safer and more comfortable than three or four canoes tied together.” He was right: these unlikely, cumbersome vessels designed for safety on the Colorado River were transformed into inflatable party barges on the lazy Meramec, and revolutionized that sector of the tourist industry in the Ozarks. Dad’s business grew, and his vision for his semi-retirement job expanded from a cozy little 60-canoe family business to a real enterprise. He capitalized by investing his profits into moving his headquarters to a larger piece of land, with easier river access and room for camping and cabins, just across the river.

“Across the river” is where the trouble started. Dad’s business relied on his St. Louis customers driving out Interstate 44, through the Onondaga State Park, and then across a low-water bridge to get to him. For decades, the county had maintained a one-lane, water-level, wooden bridge of the “hog-trough” variety, fine for locals and only mildly intimidating to tourists. In 1990, the county got a state grant to replace the hog-trough bridge with a larger bridge: two lanes of traffic on concrete elevated several feet off the water level. Everybody from the Federal Highway System to the Missouri Department of Highway and Transportation to the Crawford County Court had worked over the designs on the “Super Bridge.” The caption under the photo of it in the local newspaper boasted: “A Lot of Bridge for $587,000; But No Earthly Force Can Move It.”

But by December of that year, the mild-mannered Meramec River had one of its regular floods. About twice a year for the past fifty years, the water would rise a couple of feet over the wooden hog-trough bridge, making it temporarily impassible. But when the flood receded, the old hog-trough was always there, ready to carry one lane of traffic. Not the new bridge, though: This routine flood cracked up about 60 feet of the concrete apron around the south end of the bridge.

A quick patch job ensued with a thousand dollars worth of concrete, and then official finger-pointing began. The commissioners blamed the contractors, who swore they never wanted to make a concrete low-water bridge in the first place, and a flood was an act of God, and so on. But before the arguing could get very far, the Meramec flooded again. In January of 1991, the river munched 100 feet of the bridge (pretty much everything except the recently repaired section!), along with quite a bit of the roadway leading up to it. The local newspaper changed its tune from “No Earthly Force Can Move It” to “Now On Its Way to the Gulf of Mexico.” “The bridge will probably remain out until summer,” the paper mused.

“Out until summer” is a scary phrase for a small business with a seasonal income. My dad’s canoe rental had less than four months to make most of its money for the year. From about memorial day to labor day, crowds of vacationers would flock to the river and hand over their money as fast as a canoe rental could take it in. There are days during the peak season when you can rent the same canoe three times in a day, when people beg you to let them crowd into rafts right up to the safety rating, and when you think you could rent floating driftwood to tourists, if you could affix handles to it fast enough. But after labor day, the money season is over. You can’t make a living renting canoes and flat-bottom boats to the half-dozen fishermen per week who want to be taken to the river between October and April. The bridge was smashed in January, and as Winter turned to Spring and Summer approached, it stayed smashed.

The summer of 1991 materialized as the worst case scenario: A bridgeless recreational season, a disaster of business-closing proportions. Dad tried everything he could, from coaching customers in how to make the long roundabout drive to the canoe rental (a circuitous 17-mile route including about 8 miles of loose gravel roads), to contracting with landowners on the south side of the river for permission to launch canoes from their land, to ferrying customers (and employees!) across the river in motorboats converted into makeshift pontoon platforms, to looking into the legal tangles of the overlapping jurisdictions (county, state, state park, corps of engineers, contractors, insurance companies, etc.).

But business was terrible. Dad had a hundred-acre recreational empire on the wrong side of the river. “Here we sit,” he told the newspaper. “Everybody has a story, but we still don’t have a bridge.” He laid off 25 seasonal employees and ran what was left of the canoe rental with a skeleton crew that season.

As his frustration mounted, he sat with piles of useless canoes and rafts, vacant campsites and unemployed horses, staring across the narrow river at the massive concrete wreckage of the bridge. Six bridgeless months, for no good reason. If it weren’t for the red tape and the liability, he could push enough gravel into those gaps in a couple of days to make it passable for vehicles.

And that was the idea that got him going. On July 25, 1991, he rented the heavy equipment and got to work. He hauled gravel out of his own downstream gravel bars and poured it into the gaps until he had a one-lane bridge back in place. He topped it off with six loads of purchased road-grade gravel (“chat”), and put up a series of safety markers (barrels, fenceposts, and warning signs) along the roads approaching the bridge. He put the bridge into working order in a couple of days. That’s when the shouting started.

My dad was a practical man, an ambitious entrepreneur, and a natural entertainer. Put those character traits together and you get somebody who was a bit of a character. When the reporters came out to ask a few questions, they quickly realized that they were interviewing a one-man Public Relations Department, who could fire off homespun sound bites faster than they could write them down.

“Hell, I’m no radical,” he told the Cuba Free Press for their August 1, 1991 cover story, “but when it comes a time that things are not effective, it’s time to change things.” He painted a rosy picture of how much better things were now that he was back in business with a repaired bridge: “Our horseback riding really improved because it was easier for the people camping in the state park to come over. Shoot, our horses were really happy to see all those people leave.”

“I’m not mad at the commission or anybody, but I’ve only got one month left to put some fat on the table. I employ 40 people full- or part-time. That’s a lot of jobs in this county.” For local audiences, Dad dialed his natural Will Rogers tone of voice down to something a little more Jerry Clowerish: “This had just went on too long,” he said of the bureaucratic run-around.

“When I told one of the commissioners last week what I was going to do, he said, ‘You go ahead Fred, but you know we’ll have to come down and tear it all back out of there.’ I told him that would be alright because I would put it right back after they left.” The press called it “The Bridge that Fred Built.”

Dad fixed the bridge on Thursday and had his first truly robust weekend of business. First thing Monday morning, the county commissioners voted to barricade the bridge. But one commissioner told the newspaper that “it would probably be late this week before his men could get the barricade in place.” In fact the makeshift bridge stayed up all summer. Bureaucratic inefficiency was now in Dad’s favor.

Dad had been warned in advance by the county’s prosecuting attorney that he could be arrested for fixing the bridge. “The next time you interview me, it may be from the county jail,” Dad half-joked with reporters. “But the county was reluctant to actually carry out the threat,” reported the Cuba Free Press in February of 1992.

That winter, the bridge was still standing, despite county threats and floodwater. The state promised a new bridge by June of 1992, but Dad knew better than to be optimistic about that. He had met most of the commissioners face to face, and had no grudges against them: “I voted for all of them once and would probably vote for them again.” But he had come to view the parks division as the main obstacle to getting anything done. He described their attitude as “What time do we get off work?” “It’s the kind of bureaucracy that designed the original horse and then gave us the two-humped camel. You can’t print what I really think about them.”

In fact the new bridge, a much larger affair even higher off the water, wasn’t built until early 1994. There were more summers to survive with a one-lane bridge that Dad kept repairing as the floods came up and the legal hassles came down. He kept his business going in a variety of ways, and rented plenty of canoes. But his complete business plan depended on people being able to drive from St. Louis to his centralized property across the river. He had envisioned a synergy among floating, camping, horseback riding, food catering, and everything else that makes Ozark tourism fun, to extend the recreational season a month or two in either direction. That plan never came together. Having dabbled in a variety of bankruptcy and reorganization schemes, Dad sold the business the year the bridge was completed. He took a managerial job with the company, doing pretty much what he had always done, but without the crushing financial responsibilities impinging directly on him. The company is still in business, and with the bridge in place, the full plan finally came together for the new owners.

A hard-headed rebel and trouble-maker in his youth, Dad always remained a scrapper even after his adult conversion to Christianity. He was a bit irascible, and even though the bridge fiasco was the death-blow for his thriving business, it was obvious that he enjoyed the fight. He couldn’t solve the one main problem that confronted him in this fight, but you have to admire his ingenuity and determination in coming up with solutions and strategies for everything that was under his control.

Dad died in 1998. Later that year, at the urging of several people including my sister, Dad’s business partner petitioned the county commission to re-name the 1994 bridge in Dad’s honor. In October of 1998, the bridge was re-named and the commemorative plaque in Dad’s honor went on it. So if you go to Highway H over the Meramec River outside Leasburg, Missouri, you can drive across the Frederick E. Sanders Bridge. And it’s a legal bridge, with its name legally changed to honor the illegal activity my Dad engaged in during the early 1990s.

Dad’s career as self-appointed bridge-maker-in-chief all happened after I was grown up, married, and in seminary in Kentucky. I had worked at the canoe rental every summer through high school and college, but only followed the bridge saga from a distance. But through the whole thing, I could tell that Dad was behaving as the character I knew him to be.

I suppose one possible moral of the story is that you can in fact keep a good man down: all you have to do is cut his best laid plans right in half, blight his prospects with a tangle of paperwork, and conceal the solution to his problem in an Ozarks version of a Kafkaesque nightmare. But even when he’s down, a good man can still be good. He can still be courageous, feisty, inventive, and plucky. He can even be funny and inspiring. And eventually, even the powers that ground him down will end up acknowledging that he did the right thing.

There are various practical lessons here about government, submission to authority, capitalism, and politics, as well. But I am most struck by a spiritual aspect of Dad’s last big business adventure.

My Dad gave his life to Jesus in early adulthood, as a single father of two kids and a man who found himself at the end of his rope. A great Foursquare church enfolded him (and his kids) in his time of need, and taught him how to live. He was an on-fire, born-again type of Christian in the southern California of the 1970s, full of good works for widows and orphans in our neighborhood, fully committed to the life of the church, and studying the Bible intently. Naturally gregarious and a born influencer, he was highly likely to witness to anybody he spent time with. By the early 1990s, his ardor had cooled considerably, but the radically Christian Fred could still flash out in unexpected ways, and there were elements of his life that you couldn’t explain without knowing the radically Christian backstory.

Early in his life as a believer, Dad learned that God’s ways are mysterious and far above our comprehension. He knew what it meant to submit to the direction that circumstances took, because he knew that somewhere in the midst of all those events, God’s hand was on the course of things. He could indulge in his share of gallows humor about how bleak things were getting and how many plans had blown up, but he never gave in to a karmic or supersititious view of life. He could “take arms against a sea of troubles” and put up with “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” because he knew that God was in charge.

That Christian confidence in God’s goodness and sovereignty, even if it was somewhat subliminal in his later years, let my Dad take an essentially playful attitude to his problems, even when they were quite serious. Somewhere in the middle of all this, Dad started thinking that Ross Perot and Amway were somehow going to save the day, but when they inevitably didn’t, he wasn’t crushed. Mad as he got at the feckless bumblers who blocked his road to success, he never became imbalanced or contemplated revenge. He knew that in all “the dance of plastic circumstance,” we ultimately are dealing with God rather than with men.

Dad knew he had a Father in heaven, and that anything that came into his life had to pass through the will of that Father first: even the floods and the red tape and the economic trends, and the perfect storm they made to sink his ship. My Dad’s dad, the first Fred Sanders, died in WWII before my Dad (the second Fred) was old enough to know him. His step-father was, to put it delicately, not a good role model or father figure during the formative years. But by the grace of God, my Dad learned through salvation what it means to have a good Father, and in his own way he learned how to be a good son of that Father. I had the advantage of having a good earthly Dad as well as a heavenly Father, and now that I (the third Fred) have a son (the fourth Fred) and a daughter, I hope I can model how to be a good child of the true Father.


*August 1986, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “Rafts Float into Streams’ Future.”
*August 30, 1990, Cuba Free Press, “Super Bridge Built Over Meramec.”
*December 13, 1990, Cuba Free Press, “Flaw Found in $590,000 Bridge.”
*January 3, 1991, Cuba Free Press, “Meramec River Wrecks New Bridge.”
*January 10, 1991, Cuba Free Press, “County Considers Next Step in County Road Bridge.”
*May 2, 1991: Cuba Free Press, “Bridge Damage No Surprise.”
*June 16, 1991, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “DECKED: Crumpled Bridge Hurts Meramec Tourism.”
*date unknown, Cuba Free Press, “Delay in Bridge Costs Man Thousands.”
*August 1, 1991, Cuba Free Press, “Canoe Rental Owner Rebuilds Cave Bridge.”
*February 20, 1991, Cuba Free Press, “State Has Own Idea on Onondaga Cave Bridge.”
*February 27, 1992, Cuba Free Press, “Resort Owner Angry at State Delay.”
*August 26, 1992, Cuba Free Press, “Bridge Costs Jump by $36,000”
*May 7, 1998, Cuba Free Press, “‘Sanders Bridge’ Proposed as New Name for Onondaga.”

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