From the collections at the Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum. Reprinted with permission from The Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum and the Leavenworth Times. Donated by Debra Graden.
LEAVENWORTH, KAS. --The 80-year-old Ft. Leavenworth bridge, which is scheduled to be torn down and replaced by a modern, 3 1/2-million-dollar toll bridge, narrowly missed becoming a "bridge of destiny" back in the roaring 1860s.
Had is been completed a few years earlier it might have changed the futures of both Leavenworth and Kansas City.
As events turned out, it was started in 1868 and completed in 1872 --three years after the opening of the Hannibal bridge across the Missouri river at Kansas City. The date of completion of the Hannibal bridge, July 3, 1869, is heralded historically as the day of Kansas city's ascendancy over other up-and-coming river towns of the era --Leavenworth, Atchison and St. Joseph.
Three years may not sound like much of a margin, but back in the 1860s, when the race between towns for a direct rail connection with the East was terrific, the matter of weeks or even days was vital. The railroads at this time were pushing westward and virtually every town of any ambition was straining to reach out and pull the railroad toward its proposed depot. Bond issues were raised almost overnight. Frantic lobbying trips were made to Washington, and every king of conniving was practiced to get the jump on the rival towns.
With the muddy Missouri river a barrier to transportation, a bridge was the key to getting the rail connection. And a rail connection was the key to future growth and progress.
Thus the Hannibal bridge won the big race to become the first upstream crossing of the Missouri river and the old Fort bridge became an "also ran." But this does not detract from its colorful history, or the interesting aspects of its ownership and architecture.
The bridge, by an unusual circumstance, is owned by the Department of Justice, which manages the large federal penitentiary at Leavenworth. Earlier, around 1925, it was owned by the War department, which has control of the Ft. Leavenworth reservation. Before that, the bridge was built and owned by Dutch investors who, back in the 1860s, had enough faith in the growth of the Midwest to advance the money to build the long, narrow structure.
The bridge was constructed under an act of Congress of July 20, 1868, which granted permission to "build a railroad transit and wagon bridge across the Missouri river upon or near the Ft. Leavenworth military reservation."
When it was opened to railroad traffic April 10, 1872, Leavenworth and its Platte County, Missouri, neighbors across the river celebrated with oratory and a barbecue. The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific was the first railroad to use the bridge.
It carried all kinds of traffic --soldier, civilian, farmer and merchant, horseback rider and pedestrian. It survived two major floods, those of 1903 and 1951, and lived through the bustle of three wars, Spanish-American, World War I and World War II.
However, its narrow, 18-foot roadway remained a major railway link for only about twenty years. When the Leavenworth Terminal bridge was built in 1893 all three railroads crossing the river into Leavenworth began using it and abandoned the Fort bridge. The other two railroads shifting to the Terminal bridge were the Chicago Great Western and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy.
For several years the Fort bridge was used only for wagon traffic, and then began a series of fires in the flooring that reduced it still further to pedestrian traffic and finally rendered it useless in the early 1920s. The fires did not destroy the iron superstructure.
"The bridge was on fire many times," said Mike Bahler, retired fire chief of Leavenworth. "A fire in 1909 destroyed the long eastern approach of trestlework that lead from the Missouri bottomlands to the superstructure. And in June, 1913, the bridge flooring caught fire, burned and was not repaired until some years later."
After the eastern approach burned, Daniel R. Anthony III, editor of the Leavenworth Times, says that a 50-foot circular staircase was built from ground level up to the bridge to permit use by pedestrians.
The 1913 fire, he added, burned out the floor completely, including the staircase at the eastern end, closing the bridge even to foot traffic.
So it stood until about 1925, then the late Representative D. R. Anthony, jr., of Leavenworth introduced a bill in Congress authorizing the War department to buy the bridge from the Dutch investors for $35,000. A previous inspection by bridge engineers had found the piers and frame sound. It is not known how much the bridge cost originally, but engineers estimate the figure at between $150,000 and $200,000.
War department ownership was logical since the western end of the bridge was on Ft. Leavenworth property and the eastern end terminated in the Platte County bottomlands, also owned by the War department. this extensive bottomland acreage was covered with heavy timber and was unsuited for cultivation without costly clearing.
At that time the warden of the penitentiary at Leavenworth was William I. Biddle, a Leavenworth citizen. The penitentiary was overcrowded and the problem of how to keep the prisoners occupied was a major one.
Biddle hit upon the idea of using hundreds of trusties, short-termers and those who had served most of their long terms, to work in the bottomlands across the river. He figured that after the land had been cleared, it could be farmed profitably. He also proposed housing the trusties across the river, thus reducing congestion in the penitentiary.
The outcome was a bill in Congress to transfer title to the farm and bridge from the War department to the Justice department and to appropriate $50,000 for a new floor for the bridge and to rebuild the eastern approach.
The late Senator James Reed of Missouri cooperated with Representative Anthony of Kansas and the bridge was reopened in 1926. It has carried a growing volume of traffic each year since then.
This increase is accounted for in two ways --the surging growth of motor car ownership and the fact that when the old Fort bridge was renovated the Terminal bridge was closed to foot and vehicular traffic and used exclusively by the railroads.
Under the Justice department and the bureau of prisons, with maintenance the joint responsibility of the Kansas and Missouri highway departments. both departments made some improvements to the approaches and it became, despite its narrowness and age, the entranceway into Kansas of U.S. highway No. 92.
At the time, says the Leavenworth Times, it was the only free bridge of its kind across the Missouri river upstream from St. Louis.
Bridge engineers believe it is the oldest bridge still standing across the Missouri river. The original Hannibal bridge at Kansas City, which antedated it, was rebuilt completely in 1915, which makes the present Hannibal structure forty-three years younger than the old Fort bridge. the old Fort bridge also antedates by five years the Milwaukee (Chouteau) bridge, at present Kansas City's bridge.
Before proposing to replace the old Fort bridge with a modern steel-and-concrete structure, financed by tolls, Howard, Needles, Tammen & Bergendoff, consulting engineers, made a study of the old structure. They found a "general obsolescence and a progressive structural deterioration" that would cost $492,000 to remove. Hence they recommended a new structure which they said would be self-liquidating over a period of twenty-four years. They also found some interesting engineering features. One is that the vertical trusses connecting the main top and bottom horizontal supports are set at angles so they crisscross instead of being plumb.
"This type of construction is an engineering relic," said Josef Sorkin, of the consulting engineering firm. "It was popular in the decade 1865 to 1875, and is called the Post truss construction. It was named for Simeon S. Post, the engineer who advanced the idea.
"It was an intermediate step between the earlier Whipple truss and the later Warren double-truss, but it did not last long.
"We also found the main overhead compression beams and the long tubular piers which go down to bedrock were made of cast iron. We don't know where they were cast, whether in the East or in Europe. but it's rare to find cast iron instead of wrought iron in old bridges. That alone makes it a rarity in this section of the country."