A DREAM COME TRUE; Citizens celebrate completion of span over Missouri River

A DREAM COME TRUE; Citizens celebrate completion of span over Missouri River An immense U.S. flag, a huge banner of the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers and an equally massive South Dakota state flag were paraded across the Newcastle/Vermillion bridge from South Dakota to Nebraska by volunteers and students from the high schools in Vermillion and Newcastle, NE. Approximately three dozen people carried each flag.

by David Lias Betty Curry set the tone Saturday for a memorable program to dedicate the recently completed Newcastle/Vermillion Bridge.

Curry, a member of the Newcastle/Vermillion Bridge Committee, was the first speaker to address an audience of about 1,000 people at the Nov. 10 ceremonies.

She stood on a portable stage located in a field on the Nebraska side of the Missouri River near the bridge.

The stage was decorated with red, white and blue bunting and 10 U.S. flags snapping on staffs in the morning wind.

"The breeze is a little cool," she said, "but we can take comfort in the fact that we aren't nearly as cold as the devil. When this project started, I heard comments such as 'before they ever get a bridge, it will be a cold day in hell ?' Therefore, the devil must be very, very cold."

The crowd reacted with laughter and applause. It was difficult to not be in a festive mood Saturday, standing near the shores of the Missouri River next to a new, gleaming white concrete bridge that Curry described as a dream come true.

"In the nearly 14 years that we have been working on this project, we have forged many friendships with our South Dakota neighbors," she said.

Curry invited the South Dakotans in the audience to always feel welcome to cross the bridge and experience Nebraska's "southern hospitality."

"We have come a long ways," said Don "Skip" Meisner, who served as master of the dedication ceremonies. "The educational opportunities and ag opportunities are great. This bridge is going to be important for tourism and economic development."

In 1988, local leaders from both South Dakota and Nebraska met in the Newcastle Fire Hall and organized what finally became a successful effort. The Newcastle/Vermillion Bridge Committee was organized in 1989 and incorporated in 1991, the same year the bridge was authorized by Congress.

But it took nearly a decade to secure funding, Sen. Tim Johnson said. Sen. Tom Daschle, who was unable to attend Saturday's ceremony, was able to keep the project alive in 1996 when it appeared impossible to gain funding.

Groundbreaking finally took place in July 2000.

"Hopefully, each of you will find some time very soon, if you haven't already done soon, to drive over and begin your exploration of our city to the north," said Vermillion Mayor Roger Kozak. "I know I'm looking forward to exploring the Nebraska side."

He said it is gratifying to know that South Dakotans no longer will have to admire Nebraska's scenery from a distance.

"And in Vermillion, I'm confident that you'll find a wide variety of things to do," Kozak said, noting that the city is home to The University of South Dakota, several museums and recreational activities, and progressive businesses.

"I want to add my thanks to the many individuals who worked for so many years to make this dream come true," he said.

Johnson, who grew up in Vermillion, said he learned to hunt, fish, water ski and even ice skate on the Missouri River near Mulberry Point, where the bridge is located.

"This whole area is of profound consequence to me personally," he said. "It also is something that all of us in the region can take great satisfaction in."

John Craig, director of the Nebraska Department of Roads, said it isn't often that Nebraska adds a bridge with a totally new alignment to the over 16,000 bridges already existing in the state.

"In addition, Newcastle is now linked to a state university, large manufacturers and a major hospital in Vermillion," he said.

"It's not often that we build a bridge of this size and magnitude," said Tom Week, region engineer of the South Dakota Department of Transportation. "Our people have gained a lot knowledge in the bridge construction."

"Projects such as this one offer a great challenge to its builders," said Dan Timmons, vice president of Jensen Construction Company, Des Moines, IA, the project's prime contractor. "It requires a special group of people to construct them."

He praised Project Superintendent Steve Ulmer, his staff, and Jensen Construction employees for making the bridge a reality.

Timmons said the contributions by many subcontractors and suppliers also made the project possible.

"Many of our people spend a lifetime building bridges that connect neighbors," he said. "In return, the builders' lives are bridged together by the projects they build and the places they live."

Dr. James Green, co-chairman of the Newcastle/Vermillion Bridge Committee, said Ulmer and his crew were able to complete the construction of the bridge on schedule despite numerous challenges.

"He worked in rain, wind, hail and lightning," Green said. "They poured cement at 3 o'clock in the morning."

Green's voiced cracked heavy with emotion, as he recognized the hard work offered by his wife and Sy Kneifl, co-chairman of the bridge committee.

Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson said, while looking out upon the rolling bluffs and the meandering Missouri River, that he couldn't help but think of the contrasts between Sept. 11 and Nov. 10.

"Then we saw destruction. Today, we see construction," he said. "Then we saw despair. Today we see hope. Then we saw fear. Today we see a great future for this part of our wonderful country and for our two states."

South Dakota Rep. John Thune said the bridge is a great tribute to people, such as Green and Kneifl, who were persistent, tireless and dedicated to make it happen.

"This is so important for so many reasons," he said, as he described the boost in transportation, commerce, agriculture, and public services made possible by the bridge to people in both South Dakota and Nebraska.

Johnson also praised the $22 million bridge.

"It will have extraordinary consequences in terms of education, health care, commerce, transportation, convenience and the Lewis and Clark events that are coming up," he said.

Citizens, he added, should be grateful to the grassroots corps of local citizens on both sides of the river who were tenacious even during times when funding was scarce, and the project was in doubt and was being criticized.

"I look forward to a new era," Johnson said, "for Nebraska and South Dakota in this region where we can find other opportunities to partner together."

After a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the bridge, several hundred people drove to Newcastle for a celebratory luncheon in the town's fire hall.

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