Old Mississippi River Bridge set for demolition

Sunday, February 29, 2004

Its opening was a crowd pleaser. Its demise will be, too.

Cape Girardeau's old Mississippi River bridge, now an abandoned, rusty span, will come crashing down this year. Civic leaders and state highway officials expect the demolition to draw a large crowd.

It cost $1.6 million to build the bridge, which opened in September 1928. It's expected to cost $3.8 million to tear it down, Missouri Department of Transportation officials say.

MoDOT plans to demolish the nearly 76-year-old span now that it's no longer needed. A new $100 million bridge opened on Dec. 13 within sight of the old structure.

The old bridge has been barricaded and fenced off.

Highway officials plan to open bids for the demolition work in April and award a contract in May. The work itself probably would start around July and could be completed by fall, said Stan Johnson, area engineer for the highway department.

Johnson expects the work will be done in stages. "I really doubt the contractor will take all the steel off in one big boom," he said.

When the old bridge is blown up, the Coast Guard plans to shut down river traffic at Cape Girardeau for 24 hours to allow for removal of the debris.

The Coast Guard permit to build the new bridge, issued in 1996, includes the requirement that the old bridge be torn down for barge safety reasons.

Barge traffic would have difficulty navigating between piers from two bridges only a short distance apart, Coast Guard officials said.

MoDOT requested last year and received a nine-month extension from the Coast Guard for demolition of the bridge. The new deadline for having the bridge and its piers removed is Feb. 20, 2005. But highway officials said the bridge should be demolished well in advance of that deadline.

More than explosives

Eric Krapf, MoDOT project manager in Sikeston, said the demolition work includes more than explosives. The contractor will have to remove the bridge deck first and take out the road approaches on both sides of the river. Trees will be planted along the Illinois shore as part of wetlands mitigation work, he said.

Unlike the opening of the new cable-stay bridge in December, no parade or speeches are planned to celebrate the demise of the old bridge.

But KFVS-TV news reporter C.J. Cassidy will get to push a button or throw a switch to detonate explosives as part of the bridge demolition. Cassidy won the honor in a drawing sponsored by the Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce.

Unlike the ceremony for the opening of the new bridge, chamber president John Mehner expects those who watch the old bridge come down won't all congregate at a single site. Mehner said the event probably will be watched from various points along the riverfront.

City and civic leaders at one time had talked of preserving the Missouri entrance to the old river bridge as an observation platform for sightseers. But Johnson said current plans call for removing every piece of the bridge.

The city plans to keep the bridge crest and some light fixtures and flag poles as historic artifacts, Johnson said.

It took about 18 months to build the 4,744-foot-long bridge connecting Cape Girardeau and East Cape Girardeau, Ill. Before it opened, people had to rely on ferries to cross the river. At its completion, the bridge was the only one between St. Louis and Memphis, a distance of more than 300 miles.

When it first opened, tolls were charged to cross the bridge. At one time, the cheapest way to cross the bridge was by bus. The cost was only five cents per person. Pedestrians crossing the bridge had to pay 20 cents each time or 40 cents round-trip.

The bridge lost money for years and was sold at public auction in 1932. The Cape Special Road District bought it in 1943.

During World War II, soldiers guarded the bridge.

The bridge became a "free bridge" on June 29, 1957, ending 29 years of tolls. The celebration included a parade, crowning of a queen and a competition in which contestants guessed the number of cars which crossed the bridge during a 12-hour period.

Forty-six years later, people cheered for its replacement.

In 2001, just two years before the new bridge opened, former mayor Howard Tooke said the old bridge wasn't worth much anymore.

"But they're going to be letting her rest soon," he said. "I'd say she deserves it."


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Facts about Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge

Cost: $100 million including roadwork.

Dedication: Dec. 13, 2003

Design: The structure is supported by 15 piers, including land abutments in Missouri and Illinois, as well as by 128 steel cables.

Bridge materials: Include 13 million pounds of reinforcing steel and more than 200 million pounds of concrete.

Overall weight of the bridge: 266 million pounds

Width: 100 feet wide, five times as wide as the old Mississippi River bridge. It has four lanes and roadway shoulders.

Length: The bridge is nearly 4,000 feet long, almost equaling the length of 13 football fields. It includes the 2,000-foot cable-stay main section of the bridge.

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