The life of August Pfeiffer

Editors note: Over 20 years ago, former Museum Director, Steve Harold wrote an article about longtime bridge tender August Pfeiffer. That same article is being reprinted below with some additions made, most notably the recent graveside services held for Pfeiffer.

A plaque rests by the grave of August Pfeiffer, a local bridge tender who was never recognized for his service in the U.S. Army until his descendants decided to properly recognize him for his service.

A plaque rests by the grave of August Pfeiffer, a local bridge tender who was never recognized for his service in the U.S. Army until his descendants decided to properly recognize him for his service.

During the late 1890s, the biggest event in Manistee each spring was the city election. The reason the election was important was because all city jobs depended on the outcome of the election. If the party in power changed all city employees were fired and new employees were hired from the supporters of the party in power.

A single exception to this rule was August Pfeiffer who held the bridge tender position for 22 years through numerous changes of party. His record came to an end on Feb. 4, 1896, when he died two weeks after suffering a stroke.

August Pfeiffer was born in Germany on March 6, 1829, and came to America in 1847 settling in Milwaukee. In 1849 he enlisted in the U. S. Army and spent the next five years along the border in Texas and Arizona. During that time he helped build Fort Davis in Texas and later became a Sergeant in the 8th Infantry Co. G In 1857 he moved to Manistee to work in the sawmill of the Engelmanns as a scaler. Over the next sixteen years he worked his way up to head sawyer with that firm.

It is difficult to imagine Manistee without a bridge across the river but that was the situation until 1866 when a private wood truss turn-bridge was built. That bridge burned in the Great Fire in 1871 and was eventually replaced by a publicly owned iron bridge.

Initially the bridge was to be owned by the county but due to a lack of support in rural areas ownership was assumed by the City of Manistee. A Howe truss wrought iron swing bridge was completed at a cost of $18,000 in May of 1873 and put into operation.

It was this bridge that August Pfeiffer was appointed tender of in 1874. He seems to have performed his duties to near perfection for virtually everyone was satisfied with the bridge and its operation. This is amazing in view of the primitive aspects of the bridge in comparison to what we have today.

The bridge was only 16 feet above the water with a hill leading down to it from each direction. Further there were neither crossing gates nor lights to prevent traffic from falling in the River if the bridge was open. Initially there were lights for vessels but it was more than a decade before lights were installed for pedestrians and vehicles. The bridge tender apparently maintained the bridge and turned it to open it for vessels in the River from a small building alongside the structure.

The Manistee Daily News spoke eloquently of August Pfeiffer as bridge tender:

“He has watched a generation grow up day by day as they trod the walks of the bridge. The captains say that night or day they never had to signal twice for the bridge to swing. Mr. Pfeiffer was always on hand just as promptly as clock work.

It was his home and he knew every bolt and beam in the old bridge, caring for it and watching it as he would a child. Every boat that entered the port he was able to name by its whistle. It was a long service and an honorable one for the city. Through the various city administrations he passed without being drawn into the whirlpool of politics and he retained his position by strict attention to duty.”

Shortly after he came to Manistee August Pfeiffer married a lady named Mary and the couple had at least five children: Clara, Emma, William, Teresa, and Ewalt. The family lived in the home at 13 Webster Court and family attended the German (Trinity) Lutheran Church. Pfeiffer was also a founding member of the German Aid Society.

In mid-January of 1896, August Pfeiffer went to work as usual one morning only to collapse shortly after he arrived at the bridge. He was taken the home of his daughter, Mrs. H. F. Mertens, where he remained until his death. His funeral was held at the German Lutheran Church and was attended by his many friends.

Perhaps the most fitting memorial to August Pfeiffer was at his bridge where the bridge house was draped with black bunting.

However, between when this article was originally printed in February 1996 and June of this year, another memorial was granted to August Pfeiffer. The purpose of this memorial was because even though he spent five years of his life in the service, he was never properly recognized for it. This exclusion was rectified on Thursday, June 14, 2018 (Flag Day), when the Manistee County Honor Guard presented a graveside service for Pfeiffer in Trinity Lutheran Cemetery in Manistee. It was attended by relatives including local great, great, great grandchildren. Some relatives came from Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana. The Veterans Markers and flag are now in place at August’s gravesite.

“Peace on Earth” was played on flute following the service by great, granddaughter Sandy Shyposki from Indiana.

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