The Unbridgeable Bridge

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Hannibal Bridge, under construction


On July 3, 1869, amongst balloons and big-brass music, some 32,000 residents of Kansas City gathered to celebrate the opening of the Hannibal Bridge. This bridge changed the course of the city by creating a Midwest junction, with rails out in every direction. Such a boom was the result of the Hannibal Bridge that Kansas City’s population, revenues, and businesses expanded following opening day.



Despite previous notions that the Missouri River was too wild and unpredictable to be bridged, Octave Chanute undertook the design after the United States Congress allowed for its construction. In 1867, Chanute, a civil engineer renowned for his work on Chicago rail lines (and the stockyards in both Chicago and Kansas City) laid down plans for the first bridge to span the Missouri, utilizing wrought iron, trusses, and limestone pillars for reinforcement – trains are pretty weighty, you know.



Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library


In particular, Chanute employed quadrangular trusses, which Charles Ezra Greene, author of “Bridge-Trusses,” describes as follows:


“If the bridge seat is at the level of the lower chord, the end post will carry one-half the total weight of truss and rolling load, or r t.


Got it. Trusses are created from a triangular structure, as pictured in the postcard of the Hannibal Bridge above. The central section of the bridge swung open and closed by method of a rotating-draw device to allow for passage of large steamboats chugging along the Missouri.


Kansas City already boasted lines east and westward, but in order to become a real crossroads, needed north and south lines. A hard-fought battle led by Missourian Kersey Coates (founder of the Kansas City Board of Trade and Quality Hill, a neighborhood atop the bluffs overlooking the Hannibal bridge) earned the A-OK for the line in Kansas City. It was erected for the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad Company, thus the Hannibal name. Before its opening, it was referred to as “The Kansas City Bridge.” Its cost was approximately $1,000,000. It was worth every penny.





And so Kansas City became a national trade hub, and the second largest cattle exchange location in the United States. The bridge rendered obsolete the prior practice of disassembling rail cars, ferrying to the opposite shore of the river and reassembling. When not occupied by trains, horse-drawn cars used the bridge for crossing, and pedestrians could walk along a side deck at any time. And even though the Hannibal and St. Joseph line was acquired by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Co. a few short years after the bridge’s construction, the name Hannibal remained – remains – a mainstay in Kansas City.




In 1886, a devastating Midwest tornado collapsed the center of the Hannibal, and the quadrangular-truss was replaced with a more basic truss design.



Hannibal Bridge following the 1886 tornado
Hannibal Bridge following the 1886 tornado


But alas! The original Hannibal was razed in 1917. A new bridge, just 200 feet from Chanute’s masterpiece, opened bearing the moniker “Hannibal Bridge II,” and still stands today.



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Photo courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library