Riverside Bridge, a one-lane landmark, has been closed since July 2015. Built in 1909, it was originally located in Ozark before being moved to its current location outside of town.
OZARK – Sunny days yield a diamond-like sparkle beneath Riverside Bridge, its river flowing with a whispered hello. The unending conversation dates to when the pin-truss beauty came to be — and now, 107 years later, the bridge has come to mark both maps and minds. After all, since the demise of neighboring Riverside Inn in 2010, only the bridge survives to tell the tale of that once-popular area.
But its future is uncertain. That seemingly innocent flow can be fickle, proven when flooding of the Finley caused the aging structure to close in July 2015. It’s a fact that some locals hope doesn’t spell a death sentence.
“People normally think of our mill, historic bridges, and beautiful square,” says Kris Dyer, director of the Save the Riverside Bridge Initiative, in an email. “If you start taking those things away, what is Ozark going to be known for then? It’s like taking the Eiffel Tower away from Paris.”
In the beginning
Ozark’s covered wooden bridge was constructed 1864-1865 by Wm. Easton and a Mr. Putney, and was located near the town’s mill. (Photo courtesy of the Christian County Library)
Riverside Bridge wasn’t originally located where it is today. Instead, it was in Ozark — and in a weird twist of fate, came to be because of a flood.
That torrential event occurred in 1909, when record-setting waters swept through Christian County. Ozark’s covered wooden bridge was one of the casualties: Water tore the structure from its supports, and rushed it downstream where it hit the town’s railroad bridge and shattered.
Ozark’s covered wooden bridge was destroyed in the 1909 flood. (Photo courtesy of the Christian County Library)
At the time, Ozark’s city fathers pushed to rebuild the bridge closer to the depot, which hadn’t existed when the covered bridge was originally built. The county commission, however, had other ideas.
“The county commissioners were not necessarily loyal to Ozark,” says local historian and author Wayne Glenn. “I don’t know that any of the three men who were on the county commission at that time were even from Ozark proper. So no, they went ahead and replaced the bridge where it’d been, because they owned the property and it was no big deal, see? It cost, but that’s what had to be done because they had to have a bridge there at the mill.”
Work on the bridge went quickly: By the end of 1909, the new bridge — made of metal, and measuring six feet higher and 20 feet wider than the wooden one — was sourced from the Canton Bridge Company of Ohio for nearly $4,000. And that’s where it stayed for the next decade and a half.
Moving to Biers Ford
Riverside Bridge is pictured in its original location in Ozark. (Photo courtesy of the Christian County Library)
That bridge saw the county through a boom of change in the post-World War I period. “The soldiers came back, and that stimulated the economy,” says Glenn. “This was a progressive period where a lot of things were being done. And the county was growing.”
It was such a spurt of growth, in fact, that the city soon outgrew the bridge: By the early 1920s, horses, mules, wagons and buggies — things the bridge was designed to handle — were being replaced by automobiles. “The bridge that had been built in 1909 was just a little bit too early and a little bit too small,” says Glenn.
County commissioners, once again tasked with the bridge dilemma, decided to replace it — and asked the local road district determine what to do with the still-good former bridge. In the end, the group recommended it be moved to Biers Ford, a river crossing outside of town.
“Biers Ford was a natural place where people crossed,” says Glenn. “In the 1911 plat map, that was a road. It was just a natural thing to do, and it was more economical.”
The owner of Biers Ford, however, wasn’t excited about the idea. “The local landowner Frank Biers was not willing to sell or vacate his land on the south side of the newly erected bridge,” wrote Glenn in 2010. In response, three “disinterested” local men were appointed by the circuit court to assess the value of the .61 acre of land that Biers refused to vacate. In August 1924, Judge Fred Stewart ruled that Biers must accept the appraised value, for which he was paid $80. By early fall, the bridge was fully opened to the public.
That bridge shared the Finley with another local landmark: Originally known as the Blue Moon, it was a restaurant built by a young man named Howard Garrison. His $500 purchase began a journey that some deemed foolish — and a business that eventually became known as Riverside Inn.
An early look at Riverside Inn. (Photo courtesy of Eric and Lisa Engel)
“He chose a site on a bank of the Finley River amid tall trees and with a picturesque red bridge in the background,” reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on April 10, 1959. “It was the era of winding dirt roads that were dusty in summer and muddy in winter. Travel was slow and short distances were long. To build a restaurant that could serve 40 persons on a back road a mile from Ozark and 16 miles from Springfield was regarded as foolish. Even sillier was to make it a chicken-dinner place when frying-size chickens were seasonal.”
There is debate over when Riverside Inn actually began. Newspaper articles list various years, but restaurant’s last owners, Eric and Lisa Engel, tie it to 1923. Regardless of opening date — and the odds — Riverside Inn proved a quick success: It was something, in later years, that Garrison attributed to the advent of the automobile and the popularity of nearby Lindenlure. Whatever the reason, it was soon such a draw that women folk drove all the way from Springfield to visit:
“Members of the Thursday Auction Bridge club motored to Riverside Inn Thursday where they had luncheon by an afternoon of cards. The high score favor was presented to Mrs. R. L. Shoemaker, Mrs. William Reed received the consolation favor. The group voted to spend each Thursday evening during the summer at the inn.” — Springfield Leader, June 28, 1925
According to Glenn, there were a number of reasons why people were attracted to Riverside. “Number one, because the food was so good,” he says. “I mean, that actually was the original draw.”
The main entrée was the aforementioned fried chicken, which was prepared by cook Mary Ellen Marley. In those days, the restaurant didn’t have much of an actual menu, “but you were sure to like what was served,” noted Grace Anderson in “Christian County,” a book published about local history in 1998. She also mentioned other delicacies such as the fritters, both of pineapple and corn.
But according to Glenn, Garrison’s personality was also a draw. “It’s like ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes,’” he says, noting that there was just something — a quality one couldn’t quite identify — about Garrison that pulled like a magnet. “There was somehow a mystique.”
Run-ins with the law
Garrison (left) was arrested several times for illegal goings-on at the inn over the years. One was in the late 1940s, when Christian County Sheriff Clay Hodges arrested him for allowing gambling at the inn. (Newspaper clipping courtesy of Wayne Glenn)
During Prohibition, however, people were also drawn to the inn because it was wet — and not because of the nearby Finley River’s waters. The son of a saloon owner in Billings, Garrison grew up in the alcohol business: That experience may have influenced him to bring liquor to Riverside Inn. But there wasn’t any doubt that the decision earned Garrison time in prison when he was arrested during a raid at the restaurant on March 6, 1929.
The next day, the Springfield Leader reported that “Riverside Inn, the picturesque little capital of Bohemia where the dregs and the cream of society have been wont to mingle and toss of worldly cares, fell before the raiders last night and Howard Garrison, the artist who is proprietor, his brother Ralph and Mary Marvin, a negro cook, were placed under arrest.”
On March 6, 1929, Howard Garrison was arrested for selling alcohol in a raid at Riverside Inn.
The next few weeks saw a lot of splashy media coverage of the inn and Garrison’s role as “the monarch of Springfield’s underworld,” as the newspaper dubbed him. Much emphasis was put on the question of where the alcohol had come from — but Garrison’s lips were sealed.
“I think Howard was tied in with the mafia, at least out of Kansas City,” says Glenn. “I don’t think he was buying it from locals. He’s just selling it to locals.”
In Garrison’s defense, his attorney argued that Springfield’s residents were to blame for the offenses at Riverside. “You mean Springfield is Ozark’s Satan?” the judge countered back. “That’s it judge,” said the attorney.
The judge, however, wasn’t convinced. Garrison went to prison for two years, and Riverside Inn was ordered to be closed and padlocked for half of that time.
An undated photo shows Riverside Inn’s Fireplace Room. (Photo courtesy of the Springfield-Greene County Library District)
That, however, wasn’t the end of Riverside Inn. The restaurant reopened on August 2, 1930, and Garrison took over operation again once he was free from prison. As years progressed, he gradually expanded the restaurant from a “will-it-work?” cafe venture to a 35,000-square-foot banquet facility that could seat around 600 people, more if they spilled onto the patio.
Eating at Riverside was an elegant affair, especially in those days: It an experience accented by antiques, crisp linen, background piano melodies, crackling fires and long-stemmed finery. It was a destination for wedding receptions, reunions and even Harry S Truman — and, thanks to artist Garrison’s talent with paint, was an visual experience in its own right.
“Howard just painted the rooms, and he added a room at a time, so it looked like an art gallery as well,” says Lisa Engel, who notes that the ceiling and walls were decorated with strokes from Garrison’s paint-filled brushes.
Take a tour of Riverside Inn
These photos were featured in an undated souvenir booklet about the inn. (Photos courtesy of the Springfield-Greene County Library District.)
That art helped keep Garrison at the inn in spirit, even after retired and sold out in 1970. At that point, the restaurant passed to its longtime maitre d’, Jack Engel — and eight years later, he sold the business to his son, Eric. The series of sales felt like they were within the family, even though Garrison and the Engels weren’t blood relations. “(Howard) was probably closer than a grandpa to Eric, so it was kind of three generational,” says Engel.
That close-kept ownership helped offer diners more than food: Sweet memories were also served, especially since visits were often for special occasions and shared from one generation to the next. “Most of the people came and fell in love with (Riverside), and had a history tie to it, and made their own history with it,” says Engel.
The flooding Finley
The Finley River flooded Riverside Inn time and again: Engel recalls that the restaurant flooded three or four times during its final year.
The Finley, however, didn’t care about the history and memories made at Riverside Inn. Flooding was a chronic challenge; it even shuttered the restaurant for two years in the ’90s and sent Riverside back to the bank. It wasn’t until an anonymous businessman completely restored the restaurant and gave the keys back to the Engels did it reopen in December 1995.
But the flooding continued. “There was one time that we had flooded, we were only open one night and turned around and flooded again,” she says. “And I mean, these are good floods, like four feet (or) three feet of water, in the main dining room.”
Eventually, the Finley won the fight.
In 2008, the Christian County Commission applied for an Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant to purchase the property on behalf of the Engels. If approved, the grant would provide the county with funding to buy the property from the Engels and then demolish the structure.
Approval of the $1.17 million grant was announced in September 2009. After three months of last chances for memory making, Riverside served its final piece of fried chicken on December 12. “The very last night was a treasure shared by all,” recalls Engel of the bittersweet evening. “I mean, we saw 70-year-old men crying. It was a tough night.”
All that physically remains of Riverside Inn today is a small section of wall. It is now a park, and is labeled as such by the sign in the background.
Riverside Inn’s demolition began on July 23, 2010. A few days before, the Engels returned to say one final goodbye. “The last time I went down there, I just bawled my eyes out because it had a huge presence to it,” says Engel of the building. “And I think most people connected to that.”
Neither of the Engels have visited since Riverside’s been gone — but they know that the site still resonates. She mentions their former neighbors, who’ve seen visitors “bring a blanket and a bottle of wine or margaritas, and they sit on the riverbank and have toasts because there were so many memories there for them,” she says.
Protecting the bridge
While Riverside Inn’s fate was sealed by 2010, others were already working by then to try and keep Riverside Bridge alive. Dyer was spurred into action in January 2010, when she saw an article in the Christian County Headliner News announcing plans to replace the bridge. “I love Christian County history, so I knew this was a blow for our history if they were to destroy it,” she says.
She began by organizing the Save the Riverside Bridge Initiative, which quickly garnered an online following. By May 2010, the grassroots group secured eligibility for the bridge on the National Historic Register. That designation gave the bridge Section 106 status, “which means that no one can go in there and just tear it down but have to go through a process of requirements that Section 106 specifies,” says Dyer.
Despite the win, the bridge was closed in September 2010 when a routine check by the Missouri Department of Transportation revealed “critical structural deficiencies.” But after being closed for nearly three years, many rejoiced in 2013 when the bridge reopened after $170,000 worth of repairs were made.
That cheer turned into a wail just months later, when flooding once again damaged — and ultimately closed — the bridge in July 2015. It’s been barricaded ever since.
Putting it in perspective
Debris remains caught on the underside of Riverside Bridge, which has been closed since July 2015.
From her vantage point at Riverside Inn, Engel became attached to the nearby bridge. She recalls days past, when “you could probably count the cars on the bridge,” she says. “But as time went on, it was nonstop. There was traffic on that bridge all the time.”
At one point, the Springfield News-Leader reported that approximately 1,200 vehicles drove daily over the bridge — a predicament that even leads history-loving Glenn to concede that saving the bridge may not be the best solution. “If you have to choose between progress and doing nothing, then I have to go with progress,” he says. “And if that means the bridge has to go, if it has to be removed, I would understand that.”
Despite that statement, Glenn — as well as Dyer and Engel — say they’d like to see the bridge preserved in some form.
“The Riverside Bridge is a beautiful piece of architecture that you just don’t see much of anymore,” says Dyer. “Just the ‘normal’ concrete slab bridges are not beautiful, and are nothing people even think anything about. But when you see the Riverside Bridge, it makes you want to stop and observe it and think about how great our history is.”
Want to help?
Dyer is looking for volunteers to support the Save the Riverside Bridge Initiative, which can be found on Facebook. And for those who would like to view the bridge, it can be accessed from Riverside Road out of Ozark.