Endangered species: Lower Missouri River historic bridges
Saturday, September 18, 2010
The Missouri Department of Transportation is fond of saying that Missouri has more major river bridges (53) than any other state. Unfortunately, an appalling number of these bridges, especially over the Missouri River, have been demolished and replaced by mundane versions in recent years. Just in the last few years, Missouri has demolished highway bridges at Lexington, Waverly, Miami, Glasgow, and Hermann.
Looking through the list of Missouri River bridges paints a bleak picture for these important crossings. Within the next few years, four major historic truss bridges will likely be gone: Daniel Boone, Washington, Amelia Earhart, and Rulo. Once these bridges are lost, only two pre-1940 highway truss bridges will remain over the Missouri River in Missouri (Fairfax, 1935, and Brownville, 1938).
Railroad bridges are faring better, with several pre-1940 truss bridges still carrying rail traffic. The oldest of these is the Bellefontaine Bridge (1893) near St. Louis, a Baltimore truss built by George S. Morison. The Wabash Bridge at St. Charles (1936 cantilever), Glasgow Railroad Bridge (1900 Parker trusses), Sibley Railroad Bridge (1915 Pennsylvania truss), ASB Bridge (1911 telescoping vertical lift), Atchison Railroad Bridge (1900 swing), and St. Joseph Railroad Bridge (1906 swing) are all historic gems. However, as railroad bridges, they are difficult to photograph and study without trespassing, and their future is subject to the needs of the railroad companies.
Indeed, the increasing weight of locomotives has led to the demise of all of the 19th Century Whipple trusses that once spanned the river. The last, the Chouteau Bridge (1887) at Kansas City, was allowed to continue standing only because it was converted to highway traffic in the 1950s. However, this led to its eventual demolition when a new UCEB was built in 2001. To add insult to injury, the state is now spending $2.8 million to add bike lanes to the replacement bridge, money that would have been better spent toward preserving the old bridge in the first place as a pedestrian-friendly crossing.
At this point, only one Missouri River bridge has been preserved in Missouri -- maybe. The Boonville Railroad Bridge (1930) has been spared from demolition thanks to a last-minute miracle. With a vertical-lift span, however, it's going to be difficult to rehabilitate the bridge and keep the Coast Guard satisfied.
By comparison, states upriver have had moderate success preserving their bridges. Three historic Missouri River bridges in Montana have been, or soon will be, converted for pedestrian use. The Fort Benton Bridge, featuring a combination of truss spans with the oldest dating to 1888, appears to be the oldest bridge remaining over the river. It was refurbished for pedestrians in the 1980s. In South Dakota, the peculiar side-by-side trusses of the Chamberlain Bridge are undergoing rehabilitation to continue carrying local traffic. Work is also underway to convert the double-decker vertical-lift Meridian Bridge at Yankton into a pedestrian crossing.
The successes seen in Montana and South Dakota make Missouri's lack of bridge preservation even more frustrating. MoDOT had talked about keeping the northbound Daniel Boone Bridge (1932) for a bicycle lane, but suddenly scrapped that idea earlier this year. There has also been discussion about preserving the cantilever bridge at Washington for local traffic, but that seems unlikely now. Both bridges, providing connections to the popular Katy Trail, would make excellent targets for preservation and conversion to pedestrian/bicycle usage. The Washington Bridge is featured on tourism billboads for the city; it makes a wonderful "signature span" that no UCEB could ever match.
With funding for the replacement bridges still uncertain at Daniel Boone and Washington, there is still time to rally for saving the old bridges. Let's hope at least one Missouri River highway bridge can be saved in Missouri.