If a bridge doesn't cross anything, is it still a bridge? That's a philosophical question posed by a small concrete structure on Morgan Oak Street in Cape Girardeau.
While it doesn't look like much of a bridge, the structure is probably the oldest bridge in Cape Girardeau. Despite its obscurity, this small blob of concrete is one of the last major artifacts from a fascinating chapter in local history.
Louis Houck, accidental railroad tycoon, wanted to build a railroad connecting Cape Girardeau with towns to the north, an area that had been ignored by other railroads. The first train on his Cape Girardeau & Chester Railroad ran between Cape and Jackson on Nov. 16, 1905. Soon the railroad provided service to Oak Ridge, Perryville, and beyond.
Houck's railroads had a dubious reputation for low-budget construction and unsafe operations. Investigators for Missouri's Railroad & Warehouse Department visited the railroad and reported, "We went over the line from Cape Girardeau to Jackson, a distance of 10 miles, and found it to be in a very unsafe condition."
This was actually an improvement over the reports from Houck's other railroads. A frequently-quoted report from 1898 stated:
In many places the rail is not spiked to the ties and is from one to two inches clear of them, the consequences being bad low joints, bent and warped rails, and the track utterly out of line and surface. Derailments at these points are frequent, and that lives are not lost of person injured thereby, is due more to luck than management.
The report added:
Whilst we were at a point about two miles east of tunnel [near Williamsville in Wayne County], a local freight train carrying passengers, the train consisting of about 18 cars, and with locomotive in centre of train, passed us at a speed of not less than 35 miles per hour. We are free to say this in all our railroad experience of many years, we never witnessed a more reckless disregard of reasonable precautions than was shown in this instance.
When building his railroad through Cape Girardeau in 1905, Houck wasn't quite the tightwad as usual. He sprung for a stately depot and headquarters building on Independence Street, featuring stonework that was surprisingly fancy for a Houck project.
Houck chose the Happy Hollow neighborhood, between Independence and William streets, for the depot, rail yard, and other facilities. To build the south approach to the rail yard, it was necessary to construct a shallow trench for the tracks, and to provide overpasses at Good Hope and Morgan Oak streets.
Probably designed by chief engineer Dennis M. Scivally, the concrete arch overpasses were also surprisingly fancy for a Houck project. His railroads had always specialized in low-budget, low-quality wooden trestles. (Or, in some cases, no-budget spans built using fallen logs.)
Building the overpasses with concrete, a relatively new technology, was a bold choice.
The railroad, later renamed the Cape Girardeau Northern, reached its peak in 1912 before becoming a money-losing albatross. Houck, who at this point in his career was no spring chicken, was ready to unload his investment in the railroad. By 1913, he believed that he had found a suitable buyer, the Frisco Railroad. However, the deal collapsed when the Frisco went into foreclosure. Houck was stuck with the albatross, much to his dismay.
History may have been much different if the Frisco had successfully taken over the railroad. Located on high ground away from the Mississippi, the tracks between Cape and Perryville would have provided an alternate route during frequent river floods. Fruitland, Pocahontas, Oak Ridge, Daisy, Biehle, Lithium, and other small towns along the route might look very different today if they still had an active railroad.
Out of financial desperation, the Cape Girardeau Northern was forced to discontinue service along portions of the tracks. After Louis Houck died in 1925, a new owner was finally found for the railroad: the Missouri Pacific. However, they only took control of portions of the line near Cape Girardeau.
The new management had plans to make improvements to the Happy Hollow area in the 1930s, including building a viaduct to span a proposed extension of Merriwether Street. Filling the gap in the street was considered a high priority for the city, with Mayor Edward Drum saying, "I believe this project is the most important single item of improvement we can undertake at this time." Of course, the viaduct was never built and the weird gap in Merriwether Street still remains.
West from Happy Hollow, the railroad tracks ran down the middle of Independence Street for five blocks. This situation led to constant complaints and editorials in the Southeast Missourian about the poor condition of the pavement.
An editorial on March 13, 1978, stated, "And the surface of Independence street along the Missouri Pacific tracks is a continuing municipal disgrace, caused by an amazing city decision not to require the railroad to meet city engineering requirements when work was done the last time."
Car and motorcycle accidents were frequent on Independence, with numerous lawsuits filed against the railroad and city.
The overpasses at Good Hope and Morgan Oak were also a source of frustration, for train conductors and motorists alike. The March 2, 1975, Southeast Missourian reported this humorous anecdote:
The Missouri Pacific freight was backing up toward Good Hope Street overpass Sunday afternoon when the train came to a sudden halt. Two combines on a flat car were a couple inches too tall to go under the overpass. The train crew was in a quandry as to what to do. The problem was solved by letting air out of the tires of the combines. The problem-solver was a Girardean, a train buff, who happened to come along. He gave the crew a screwdriver from his car and in 10 minutes the tires were deflated.
An item from April 4, 1975, wasn't quite as fun for the people involved. The photo, taken from below the Morgan Oak viaduct, speaks for itself.
The Missouri Pacific shut down operations and removed the rails by 1986. The two viaducts remained, now spanning nothing but an empty trench. In the 1990s, the city partially filled the Morgan Oak bridge and completely removed the Good Hope bridge.
Southeast Missourian, Sept. 4, 1996
Today, the old viaduct on Morgan Oak spans a partially filled ditch, a peculiar sight from Fountain Street. With the planned extension of Fountain Street north to William Street and the installation of a roundabout at Morgan Oak, it is likely that the viaduct will be partially or entirely removed in the near future.
Before that happens, you still have a chance to visit this oddball landmark and think of Louis Houck and his low-budget railroad "empire".
A Missouri railroad pioneer: the life of Louis Houck, Joel P. Rhodes, University of Missouri Press, 2008
Louis Houck, Missouri historian and entrepreneur, William T. Doherty, University of Missouri Press, 1960
"Fifty years ago tonight first train tooted welcome here", Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian, Dec. 31, 1930 (year-end progress edition)
Various stories from the Southeast Missourian newspaper archive (available online at Google News Archive)
Annual reports of the State of Missouri Railroad and Warehouse Commissioners (some of these are available online at Google Book search)
Drawing of proposed Fountain Street extension (PDF)
USGS topographic quadrangle map of Cape Girardeau, 1924 (available online from the University of Alabama Map Collection, shows the exact route of the railroad)