Bridge to the Future
July 3, 1869: Forty thousand people gather along the banks of the Missouri to celebrate the opening of the quarter mile long Hannibal Bridge, designed by Octave Chanute, which makes Kansas City a commercial hub for the railroads that are rapidly expanding to the west.
On July 3, 1869, Hannibal Bridge officially opened as an anxious crowd of 40,000 people looked on from the shores of the Missouri River. It was a spectacular turnout for a town that just four years before only had a population of 4,000. The crowd knew that the Hannibal Bridge would be one of the most important factors in Kansas City's growth from a small frontier town into a full-blown city that outgrew all others in the region.
In the 1860s Kansas City acquired the inglorious nickname, "gullytown," for its deep trenches cut into the limestone bluffs to make way for streets and buildings. The small, crude, muddy town had much potential due to its strategic location as a trading post at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers. Nonetheless, it's growth would be severely hampered without the most important form of transportation of the era: railroads.
By 1865, Kansas City was connected to the East by railroads on the south side of the Missouri River. This made Kansas City an important east/west crossroads, but no more important than other settlements in the region, including Leavenworth, Kansas and Omaha, Nebraska. What it lacked was a north/south connection across the Missouri River. Since before the Civil War and before any railroads had reached Kansas City, local boosters lobbied for a bridge on that site that would make Kansas City an important crossroads for national trade.
Three of these boosters, Robert Van Horn, Kersey Coates, and Johnston Lykins, created a paper railway—that is, a corporation that existed legally on paper, but in reality had no assets. The company name, "The Kansas City, Galveston, and Lake Superior," made it clear that the boosters had strong hopes for Kansas City's potential future as a waypoint for northward and southbound trade.
The boosters' leadership and confidence is widely acknowledged for attracting the railroads to Kansas City. Their fiercest competition came from Leavenworth, Kansas, which had similar geographic advantages as Kansas City. The difference between the aspiring towns came down to a couple of small factors. First, Kansas City was able to coalesce more local support for the railroad issue and passed several bond issues for the development of rail lines. Second, Kansas City railroad boosters appear to have out-politicked Leavenworth's. Although historians cannot be sure, local leaders Charles Kearney, Theodore Case, and John Reid were celebrated for decades after June 1866 when they supposedly talked the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad investors out of building a bridge at Leavenworth. By then a U.S. Congressman, Robert Van Horn wrote a bill to federally authorize a bridge at Kansas City (a necessary legal prerequisite in those days) that amazingly passed through congress in a few short weeks.
With congressional backing and the support of the Hannibal & St. Joseph, construction on Hannibal Bridge could begin. Octave Chanute, an internationally-known bridge builder, took over the project that posed many challenges. These problems included an unpredictable and strong current, loose sandy soils at the river's bottom, a lack of materials and manpower so far distant from large populations, and the requirement that the bridge not interfere with river traffic.
When completed two and a half years later, the bridge spanned an impressive quarter of a mile on seven piers sunk deep into the riverbed. It sported a pivoting draw that rotated out of the way to allow the passage of large steamboats. More important than the engineering, the bridge made Kansas City a western crossroads of railroad traffic, which facilitated the city's growth into a major hub for the cattle trade. When trains were not passing over it, locals could cross by foot or wagon.
The residents of Kansas City understood the significance of the bridge on the day of its opening on July 3, 1869. A remarkable 40,000 people turned out for the festivities. Patriotic decorations adorned the bridge as the first train crossed. Citizens partook in parades, picnics, and a banquet at the Broadway Hotel. Fireworks and a hot air balloon dotted the sky. The Hannibal Bridge helped connect Kansas City to Chicago, Illinois and the rest of the nation until 1917 when it was replaced by a new bridge at the same location that still stands today.
Read full biographical sketches or profiles of people and places associated with the Hannibal Bridge; prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library:
- Hannibal Bridge Profile, by David Conrads.
- Biography of Octave Chanute (1832 - 1910), engineer and bridge builder; Chanute was in charge of the construction of Hannibal Bridge, by Susan Jezak Ford.
- Charles E. Kearney (1820-1898), lead promoter of the Hannibal Bridge project, by Daniel Coleman.
- Biography of George H. Nettleton (1831-1896), railroad baron at the time of the construction of Hannibal Bridge, by Daniel Coleman.
- Biography of Kersey Coates (1923-1887), civic leader and advocate for the Hannibal Bridge project, by Barbara Magerl.
- Biography of Robert Van Horn (1824-1916), newspaperman and civic leader who supported the Hannibal Bridge project, by Barbara Magerl.
- Biography of William Gillis (circa 1797-1869), Indian trader and Kansas City town founder; Gillis drove the last (ceremonial) spike into Hannibal Bridge, by Daniel Coleman.
- Biography of George C. Hale (1850-1923), Fire Chief; also worked on the construction of Hannibal Bridge, by Susan Jezak Ford.
View images of people and places associated with the Hannibal Bridge that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
- Postcard of the Hannibal Bridge with historical sketch from the Kansas City Star
- Crowd scene at the laying of the Hannibal Bridge cornerstone, 1867
- Hannibal Bridge construction scene, 1867
- Hannibal Bridge under construction, 1868
- Hannibal Bridge construction scene, with steamboat, 1868
- Hannibal Bridge Opening Ceremonies, 1869
- Bird's Eye View of Kansas City, Missouri, 1869
- Construction Divers at Hannibal Bridge, 1869
- Completed Hannibal Bridge, 1869
- Looking north along Hannibal Bridge, 1869
- Hannibal Bridge, 1870
- Bird's Eye View of Kansas City, Missouri, 1878
- Hannibal Bridge in the "open" position to allow boats to pass through
- Distant view of Hannibal Bridge with the buildings in the foreground, 1881
- Hannibal Bridge Tornado Damage, 1886
- Hannibal Bridge, 1920
- Dignitaries at the second Hannibal Bridge to celebrate Kansas City's centennial
- The second Hannibal Bridge during the 1951 flood
- Aerial View of Downtown Kansas City with the second Hannibal Bridge in the background, 1960
Check out the following books and articles about the Hannibal Bridge held by the Kansas City Public Library:
- Kansas City: An American Story, by Rick Montgomery & Shirl Kasper; contains a chapter about the Hannibal Bridge, with photos and illustrations, pp. 60-81.
- Kansas City and the Railroads: Community Policy in the Growth of a Regional Metropolis, by Charles N. Glaab.
- Kansas City Style: A Social and Cultural History of Kansas City as Seen through its Lost Architecture, by Dory DeAngelo & Jane Fifield Flynn; pp. 96-97.
- "Octave Chanute," by William Nicks and Debra Parson in the Jackson County Historical Society Journal, Fall 2000, pp. 10-11, 17.
- Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America, by Henry Petroski, 1905; contains references to Octave Chanute.
Continue researching the Hannibal Bridge using archival material held by the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
- The Kansas City Bridge, with an Account of the Regimen of the Missouri River, and a Description of Methods Used for Founding in That River, by Octave Chanute, 1870.
- Vertical File: Bridges--Hannibal
- SC63, Bridges-Hannibal
- Vertical File: Chanute, Octave
- Vertical File: Railroads--Hannibal and Saint Joseph
- Microfilm: Native Sons Scrapbooks, Roll 68; Hannibal Bridge and the Legend of Local Enterprise, by Charles N. Glaab
- Microfilm: Native Sons Scrapbooks, Roll 12; Kersey Coates
- William Hyde Photograph Collection Finding Aid; contains photographs taken between 1880 and 1900.
By Jason Roe, doctoral student, Department of History, University of Kansas.
A. Theodore Brown, Lyle W. Dorsett, K.C.: A History of Kansas City, Missouri (Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing, 1978), 48.
Henry C. Haskell, Jr., and Richard B. Fowler, City of the Future: A Narrative History of Kansas City, 1850-1950 (Kansas City, MO: Frank Glenn Publishing, 1950), 46-48.
Rick Montgomery & Shirl Kasper, Kansas City: An American Story (Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star Books, 1999), 60-81.