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Over the River

When a bridge is more than a public-works project.

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For 78 years, the Boulevard Bridge or “Nickel” bridge, as any Richmonder is sure to call it, has carried 20,000 people daily back and forth between Westover Hills to Byrd Park and beyond. It opened for business on New Year’s Day in 1925. The steel-truss bridge cost a dime to cross then, though residents in a small area of Westover Hills were given a free pass and didn’t have to pay the toll for years.

The bridge was built to encourage development south of the James. It worked. By 1957, when the toll dropped to a nickel, Westover Hills, which boasts everything from stately homes to cozy cottages, was thriving.

My mother and father grew up in Westover Hills, just blocks away from one another. When they were young, they often walked or rode their bikes across the bridge, usually to go for a swim at Shield’s Lake. Once my mom and her friend sat along the bridge approach, which was right in front of her house, and threw eggs at cars headed north. When one struck a southbound car by accident, the driver easily figured out where my mom lived and informed my grandfather of her prank, for which she was rightly scolded. She wasn’t alone in the pranks.

My dad recalls that the Nickel Bridge toll taker witnessed or fell victim to all sorts of shenanigans. The lights lining the bridge used to be lower than they are now, and the bulbs were covered in opaque globes that looked like moons. The glass shades were regular targets for BB practice. Sometimes children riding the city bus to school in the West End would, from their elevated height on the bus, lean over and take the toll-taker’s hat and toss it in the canal. Other times people would stick their dimes in cigarette lighters and, with gloves on, pass the hot coins to the toll taker.

And drivers regularly would “run the bridge” to escape paying the toll. My dad’s friend did it so frequently the police staked him out and an undercover officer caught him and took him to jail. The next day a brief article appeared on the front page of the newspaper speaking of the man who skipped out on a dime — only to be fined $25.

Since 1969, the bridge has been owned and operated by the Richmond Metropolitan Authority. There’s a distinct quality about this bridge, a sense that it’s almost aware its job is more than suspending people over water. On any given day 60 or so people cross it on foot or on their bikes, neighbors in Westover Hills figure. It’s why, when the bridge was being refurbished more than a decade ago, residents nearby pushed for the sidewalk. After 18 months of construction and $6 million in repairs, the bridge reopened in 1993.

As I walk across the bridge, I notice a portion of the green-gray iron rail that’s pushed out and must have been struck by a car. Twenty years ago a friend of mine lost control of her car, crashed into the bridge and went over the side. Her car landed in the river near the south bank. She was trapped inside.

People witnessed the accident and called for help. Miraculously, she was rescued unhurt. Some years later she opened a restaurant in Westover Hills. Because lifelong love is more powerful than even the most vivid brief trauma, she named her place Nickel Bridge. S

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