Wagons, ho! A guy named Lemon built a toll bridge to help them traverse the Kankakee River in the 1800s

A portion of an 1862 plat map of Pleasant Township, La Porte County, showing the area of Lemon’s Bridge on the Kankakee River and property owned by Maj. John M. Lemon. (Photo provided)

By Fern Eddy Schultz, La Porte County Historian

In the early years of La Porte County, a major question was how to get across the Kankakee River to access La Porte County. Lemon’s Bridge, built in 1840, was the first real bridge on the river and was located on what is now State Road 4. Prior to its construction, a ferry was used at this site.  

La Porte County Historian Fern Eddy Schultz

Across the river, southeastward from Mill Creek, in 1831 or 1832, came a bridge built by John Dunn. Maj. John McClenahen Lemon made an agreement with the county to operate the bridge as a toll bridge, which he later, in 1846, reconstructed. During this period, the southern part of what is now La Porte County (Hanna, Prairie, Dewey and Cass townships) was a part of Starke County (Van Buren Township). This required those residing in this location to travel a considerable distance to the northeast to cross the river at the Lemon’s Bridge location and then continue going southwest to Knox to do business, particularly to pay their taxes. The settlers in this area petitioned to become a part of La Porte County, which occurred 28 January 1842.

That change did not completely end the traffic across Lemon’s Bridge. It continued at a relatively high pace and the crossing continued to be referred to as Lemon’s Bridge. The first settlers learned about the paths followed by the Indians and they followed one of them to the location of the bridge.  

According to information contained in the archives in the La Porte County Historical Society Museum, the settlers built rafts to get across with their wagons pulled by oxen. A man by the name of John “Jack” Dunn came with the settlers and he decided it would be a good idea to build a pontoon bridge. He built piers on both sides of the river, then built two scows (defined as a wide-beamed sailing dinghies). The purpose for these was so he could float them into place between the piers and when the river got too high in the spring, he could pull them out of place and fasten them to the shore. It was reportedly a “crude affair, but better than nothing”. He charged one dollar for usage.

By 1834, this kind of bridge was not able to hold up the wagons. The county commissioners gave Mathias Redding a permit to build a ferry to carry wagons across and to charge a toll. This came into being and was operating until 1840. At that time, the traffic became too heavy for the ferry because of grain and farm products coming up from the Wabash Valley. These products were on their way to the Chauncey Bulkley Blair and Lyman Blair (brothers) warehouses in Michigan City.  Two or three others were also involved and could only operate when Lake Michigan was free of ice.

In 1840, a deal was made between the county commissioners and Maj. John M. Lemon to build a bridge across the river and operate it as a toll bridge, sharing the tolls with the county. After the bridge was built, long caravans of wagons, pulled by four and six oxen, crossed over. These wagons were called “high water wagons” and had wheels with narrow tires. These caravans were sometimes a mile long. The Farmers Hotel, located at the corner of Fifth and Pine streets where the Michigan City Post Office later stood, was operated for them.

Lemon’s Bridge was about 300 feet long with approaches about 100 feet on both sides. It had lifts in the middle so they could be pulled up at night. This prevented people from “sneaking over” to avoid payment of tolls. It was operated as a toll bridge until after the Civil War when

the Plank Road “gave out” and the commissioners decided to make them a free bridge and road.

It was pointed out that this bridge “contributed a lot to the settling of the county and to business.”

It is not known why Maj. John McClenahen Lemon was referred to as “Major.” No record has so far been located to document any military service. One source suggested he served in the War of 1812, but this has not been documented. It may have been in some way connected with him having served as a “receiver” when the government established an office in La Porte for the sale of land. Maj. Robb was the “register.”

The construction of the Lemon house in Pleasant Township in 1837 is an interesting story in itself and may be an article in the future.

Lemon, with his wife Jane, moved to La Porte sometime between the 1850 census (he is enumerated as a Toll Gate Keeper in Pleasant Township) and 1859 when they are recorded in the La Porte City Directory as residing at the nwc of Jefferson Avenue and Madison Street. Maj. Lemon was born in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, 27 February 1791 and died in La Porte 27 August 1867. Jane was born in Woodland County Kentucky, 15 May 1791 and died in La Porte 05 November 1876. They are buried in Poets Hill Section of Pine Lake Cemetery.   

FERN EDDY SCHULTZ is La Porte County’s official, state-appointed Historian. To learn more about the La Porte County Historical Society and its museum, visit http://www.laportecountyhistory.org.

4 Responses to “Wagons, ho! A guy named Lemon built a toll bridge to help them traverse the Kankakee River in the 1800s”

  1. Dean Heise

    Mar 12. 2018

    Great reading, thanks Fern!

    Reply to this comment
  2. Mike Kellems

    Mar 12. 2018

    Fascinating article! You’re a true La Porte County gem, Fern!!

    Thank you for keeping the past alive!

    Reply to this comment
  3. Jerry

    Mar 15. 2018

    Comparing the 1862 map to the area now, there is no longer a Mud Lake. Another part of La Porte history is the extensive draining of swamps and lakes to make farmable land. Google maps shows extensive drainage ditches in the area now. (State Road 4 and the Kankakee River)

    Reply to this comment
  4. Dr. Alva R. Miller

    Jul 09. 2018

    It seems that every time I go to “columns” I learn something new about LaPorte from Fern’s article. Your town has a treasure in Fern, and I hope she gets the recognition she deserves.

    Reply to this comment

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