Building bridges A guide to history-making bridges in Southeast Missouri, Southern Illinois and Western Kentucky

Friday, October 5, 2012
Cairo Railroad Bridge

By James baughn

In 1889, a Memphis newspaper proclaimed, "It is indeed one of the wonders of the world -- a work that fills the beholder with amazement -- so extraordinary is the demonstration of man's ability to overcome natural obstacles."

What landmark could possibly deserve such high praise?

It was the first railroad bridge at Cairo, Ill., a monumental structure that was one of the largest and most expensive bridges built in the United States up to that time.

Other bridges in our neck of the woods have also set records and pushed the envelope of civil engineering. It shouldn't come as a surprise: The Mississippi and Ohio rivers are so wide that they have required the utmost engineering skill to successfully build bridges across.

Thebes Bridge

Here is a tour of these colossal river bridges, all a short drive from Cape Girardeau.

Cairo Railroad Bridge

The Illinois Central Railroad was on the verge of building a transcontinental link running north-south from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes. But there was a slight problem: the Ohio River. To span the river, while also providing adequate clearance for steamboats, would require building a bridge longer than any ever attempted in America. After years of discussions and political wrangling, the Illinois Central hired prominent bridge engineer George S. Morison to oversee construction of this $2.7 million behemoth.

Huge crowds gathered to watch the first train cross this "wonder of the world" on Oct. 29, 1889. With nearly two miles of iron trusses, the bridge was the longest metal bridge in the entire world when it was completed. That doesn't even include the wooden trestle approaches, which added almost two more miles to the length.

By the 1950s, heavier locomotives made the wrought-iron trusses obsolete. In a dramatic feat, the bridge's main spans were replaced without interrupting train service. The old spans were pushed into the river while replacement steel trusses were slid into place. Even though much of the bridge has been replaced, the original stone piers from 1889 still remain -- including one pier that weighs 10,000 tons.

Metropolis Bridge

Directions: This bridge is difficult to reach, but can be seen from a distance at Fort Defiance Park or the Cairo riverfront.

Thebes Bridge

The Cairo bridge connected Southern Illinois to Kentucky, but a direct link with Missouri was still lacking. Local railroads were forced to use difficult ferry transfers at Birds Point (opposite Cairo) and Grays Point (opposite Thebes). Prone to erosion and flooding, these Mississippi River transfers represented a huge bottleneck. Finally, a consortium of five railroad companies pooled their resources to build the $5.5 million bridge at Thebes. Designed by Polish-American engineer Ralph Modjeski, the Thebes Bridge featured a cantilevered design that made it possible to build longer spans. It also employed a new technology: reinforced concrete arches for the approaches over both shores.

This bridge has stood the test of time, still carrying two tracks of heavy train traffic on a major Union Pacific line between Chicago and Texas. It's a treat to watch trains speed across this bridge, especially if you can catch two crossing at the same time.

Directions: The best view is from the boat ramp at the Thebes Campground. If the river level is low enough, it's possible to walk along the shore to the bridge.

Brookport Bridge

Metropolis Bridge

Ralph Modjeski returned in 1917 as the consulting engineer for another local railroad bridge, this time over the Ohio River at Metropolis.

Business leaders in Paducah, Ky., had been disappointed when the Illinois Central built their first bridge at Cairo instead of closer to Paducah. However, they finally got their wish when the Illinois Central built a new bridge at Metropolis with easy access from Paducah.

Because of a lack of bedrock, Modjeski couldn't build a cantilever design here, and instead had to rely on basic steel trusses. However, he pushed the envelope by building spans that were 720 feet long, the longest simple trusses that had ever been attempted.

Directions: This bridge can be easily seen from several vantage points in Metropolis near the casino. The northern approach viaduct passes over many city streets and backyards.

Mississippi River bridge at Cairo

Brookport Bridge

Until the 1920s, railroads were the only organizations that could afford to build bridges across the two rivers in this area. However, that soon changed with the exploding popularity of automobiles along with the creation of gasoline taxes. The state highway departments now had the muscle to start building permanent structures to replace the unreliable and tedious ferry crossings.

The first of these highway bridges was the Cape Girardeau Traffic Bridge, completed in 1928, but since demolished. Not to be outdone, Paducah soon had its own bridge across the Ohio River connecting to Brookport, Ill. Completed in 1929, it's obvious that design standards weren't quite as stringent back then: the roadway is less than 20 feet wide, has a slick steel grate and features a curve at the northern end. A drive across this bridge is quite an adventure.

Directions: The best way to experience this bridge is to drive across -- but please pay attention to the road. Motorcycles not recommended.

Cairo highway bridges

Ohio River bridge at Cairo

Cairo had long enjoyed a railroad bridge, but the city needed highway bridges to stay competitive. Engineers had toyed with the idea of building a three-legged super-bridge connecting Missouri, Kentucky and Illinois above the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. If built, this would truly have been a wonder of the world.

Instead, officials decided to focus on a single bridge across the Mississippi River (completed 1929) and then follow up later with a separate Ohio River crossing (completed 1937). Both of these bridges suffer from the same problems as the Brookport Bridge: a narrow 20-foot roadway and sharp curves at one end. At least these bridges have solid pavement instead of steel grates.

Directions: Both bridges can be seen from the confluence at Fort Defiance Park. The old tollhouse at the intersection between the bridges is now open as a visitors center.

Chester Bridge

The stretch of river between St. Louis and Cape Girardeau remained without a bridge until 1942, when a new toll bridge opened at Chester, Ill. During the opening celebration, 13,000 cars crossed the bridge, leading to a traffic jam that reportedly stretched for more than five miles. Two years later, on July 29, 1944, a severe thunderstorm caused most of the bridge to collapse into the river. It took more than two years to rebuild and reopen. Following years of political battles, the bridge's tolls were finally removed on Jan. 1, 1989.

Chester Bridge

Directions: The roadside park and welcome center at the Illinois end of the bridge provides an observation platform. The riverfront park also offers an excellent view.

Grand Tower Pipeline Bridge

This is our closest equivalent to the Golden Gate Bridge. Carrying a natural gas pipeline across the Mississippi River at Grand Tower, Ill., this suspension bridge is more than 2,100 feet long. That makes it roughly one-quarter the length of the Golden Gate. As the time of its construction in 1955, it was said to be the longest pipeline suspension bridge in the world.

Directions: Devil's Backbone Park in Grand Tower provides the best view. The bridge can also be seen from the Missouri side along Perry County Road 460, better known as the access road to Tower Rock.

Ohio River Bridge on Interstate 24

Grand Tower Pipeline Bridge

After years of white-knuckle driving across the Brookport Bridge, the construction of a four-lane bridge on Interstate 24 in 1973 made it easier to reach Paducah. This bridge is unusual in that it features two arches that are spaced well apart.

Directions: Fort Massac State Park provides a good view from a distance.

Interstate 57 Bridge at Cairo

Old maps show that the stretch of Interstate 57 between Sikeston and Charleston, Mo. was one of the first freeways completed in Southeast Missouri. However, this superhighway stopped short of the Mississippi River until 1978 when a four-lane bridge was finally opened at Cairo.

This bridge features a steel arch design with a main span that is 820 feet long.

Ohio River Bridge on Interstate 24

Directions: This bridge is difficult to see from shore, but is easy to drive across.

Emerson Bridge

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said in a speech, "There can be little doubt that in many ways the story of bridge building is the story of civilization. By it we can readily measure an important part of a people's progress."

We can certainly see this with our local bridges. Each generation of bridges -- first railroad, then highway, then superhighway -- has brought bigger and bolder structures. The cable-stayed Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge at Cape Girardeau, completed in 2003, has a clear span of 1,150 feet. That's the longest span of any highway bridge in Missouri. But this will soon be eclipsed by the new Interstate 70 bridge under construction in St. Louis. Such is the nature of progress.