It was July 3rd, 1869. A crowd of 40,000 elbowed their way onto the banks of the Missouri to celebrate the dedication of a politically empowering marvel - the Hannibal Bridge, the first railroad bridge across the Missouri River. Perhaps more than any other historical event, this moment catapulted Kansas City from a backwoods frontier town to a lively metropolis.
The river's shifting bottom and strong current proved to be a daunting challenge for Octave Chanute, a renowned bridge engineer. The bridge spanned nearly a quarter mile across the Missouri and rested on seven deep-sunk, concrete piers. It's million dollar price tag (in 1869 dollars) included a pivoting drawbridge for steamboat passage.
Numerous design challenges faced Chanute and the builders including high steamboat traffic. They had to bring in manpower from distant locations for this large project. It took two and a half years to complete the bridge.
Divers faced formidable challenges laying the bridge piers. Several men lost their lives from the "bends" - caused when divers come to the surface too quickly.
The Hannibal Bridge survived damage from storms and several tornados in its 48 year history. In 1917, it was replaced about 200 feet upstream by the railroad bridge that you see today.
Celebrations for the opening of the bridge brought many people to the waterfront. The bridge was adorned in the patriotic red, white, and blue. A Main Street jeweler watched from a hot air balloon overhead. A cornet band led a parade. And fireworks flashed in the sky as the citizens cheered. When the first train rolled across the bridge, "not a jar or vibration was perceptible."
Photographs courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri.