Looking north along the relatively new Boulevard Bridge, which opened in 1925. Photo courtesy Valentine Richmond History Center
Alvin C. Hammer felt nickeled and dimed enough.
His annoyance with the 10-cent toll imposed by the Boulevard Bridge Corp. (BBC) sparked a 1957 investigation by the State Corporation Commission (SCC). Meanwhile, his attorney, longtime bridge toll opponent John J. Wicker Jr., questioned whether the company possessed the legal standing to take tolls at all on what is affectionately known as the Nickel Bridge.
The Westover Hills Corp., parent of the BBC, offered the enticement of free passage on the bridge to those settling in Westover Hills. A tollbooth stood about midway off the southbound lane. The initial dime toll (equivalent to $1.23 today) was halved for walkers and cyclists.
The BBC paid $275,000 (almost $4 million in today's money) to Roanoke's Atlantic Bridge Co. to build the 2,030-foot steel-truss span that opened on Jan. 1, 1925. The ordinance adopted by Richmond City Council that allowed the BBC to build the bridge included a provision that the city could purchase the structure, at cost or less, within five years of its completion. Nothing happened.
Members of City Council campaigned for municipal ownership five times from 1939 to 1959. The News Leader noted that in 1956 alone, earnings amounted to an 81.5 percent rate of return on the depreciated original cost.
The traffic generated by the neighborhoods the bridge made possible also created a clogged commuter route. And motorists paid for the privilege. By the mid-1950s, annoyance met hooliganism. Younger drivers heated up coins in their cigarette lighters, and wearing a glove, passed it onto the toll taker.
Hammer, a salesman at the downtown milk-bottle building Richmond Dairy, resided with his wife, Thelma, a Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center nurse, at 2800 Semmes Ave. Hammer and attorney Wicker took citizen frustration to the SCC and the BBC's attorney Eppa Hunton IV. In the SCC petition, Wicker argued that the tolls were illegal and asked for a "just and reasonable" readjustment. A simultaneous petition brought to court demanded abolition of "excessive and discriminatory" tolls because they weren't prescribed by the BBC charter or by SCC oversight. Further, the corporation's expenditures for the bridge were fully paid off and the investors amply compensated.
The SCC recommended a toll of 3 cents. Commission chair Ralph T. Catterall interceded that the average motorist preferred a nickel rather than fishing for stray pennies. The reduction still provided a net annual income of $37,000 (now, $101,669). Wicker argued before Council that part of the bridge was built on city property and that in the beginning the corporation should've established a franchise for the bridge's operation. He declared his intention to cross the bridge without paying to taunt the BBC into arresting him. The corporation filed an injunction to stop him.
On July 19, 1957, the nickel toll became official. Two cone-shaped cans were added to the tollbooths to expedite traffic for those with exact change. Toll supervisor J.R. Bender said one out of 10 motorists missed the cans.
Two years later, the BBC, asserting no legal obligation, rescinded the free bridge passes to Westover Hills residents. On Nov. 24, 1969, the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, a state-mandated entity that managed the development of the Downtown Expressway and Powhite Parkway, acquired the bridge for $1.2 million (about $7.4 million today).
The nickel toll doubled in January 1973. A decade later, the RMA moved to control an annual revenue loss of $14,600 a year (approximately $35,000) from cheaters by installing lifting gates.
A quirk of the bridge's personality is its toll takers. During the late 1970s, George B. Stafford and William Howard handed out lollipops and butterscotch to children riding in the cars. Their largesse was the subject of a 1988 United Press International story that spread to USA Today, Newsweek and television. Stafford, a 76-year-old grandfather of three, in one reporter's estimation gave "3,000 pounds of candy and hundreds of thousands of smiles." Then the RMA passed down a memo to dissuade the practice. "I've been doing it for 10 years, and all at once they want me to stop," Stafford told the Times-Dispatch.
The RMA cited liability. The toll, meanwhile, reached 20 cents.
Boulevard Bridge was closed on Aug. 17, 1992, for 18 months and reopened after a $6.6 million overhaul. The refit included replacing the bridge's concrete deck and building a new toll office to accompany tollbooths at the bridge's northern end. Persistent advocacy of Westover Hills and Woodland Heights residents gave the bridge safer pedestrian walkways.
The bridge, woven into the James River Park System, remains one of Richmond's grand vistas, though the toll is now 35 cents.