Construction of the Hannibal Bridge almost didn’t happen in Kansas City in 1867. Leavenworth, Kan., and Kansas City were in a race for their city’s future in the mid-1860s. Kansas City, then a fledgling town of a little more than 32,000 souls, got the better of the two Kansas municipalities and won the day largely through the efforts of some of its finer citizens who shared the dream of building the first railroad bridge across the Missouri River right here in Kansas City.
Early in 1866, some of Kansas City’s more prominent businessmen learned that Leavenworth, some 20 miles upstream from Kansas City, had already started a spur rail line to connect with the westbound Hannibal & St. Joseph railroad coming through Cameron at the time. Undaunted, they sent businessman Kersey Coates to Boston, where the directors of the Hannibal & St. Joseph were negotiating locations of future Missouri River rail bridges. Coates fought hard and persuaded the directors to postpone any decision on the placement of bridges until the following day.
Upon receiving the stay, Coates promptly sent a telegram to Congressman R.T. Van Horn in Washington, D.C., alerting him of the pending Leavenworth decision. Van Horn quickly crafted an amendment to a bill already under consideration by the house to fund the construction of several bridges over the Mississippi River. Van Horn added the Kansas City location to the bill and brought the matter to a swift vote, noting the absence of any Kansas representative on the House floor. The bill passed, and construction of the Hannibal Bridge began in earnest in 1867 under the guidance of noted civil engineer Octave Chanute.
The finished bridge depicted on this color postcard took two and a half years to construct and proved to be Chanute’s crowning achievement in a lifetime of civil engineering firsts. The bridge opened to rail traffic on July 3, 1869. The city hosted a massive celebration that included brass bands, hot air balloon ascensions and speeches by prominent citizens of the day. The morning after the bridge opened, the daily newspaper (The Journal Post) proclaimed Kansas City “from now on would boom.”
The black-and-white, handmade photo postcard shows the bridge under construction from the Missouri side, as a hand written note on the back describes. It comes from the collection of noted Kansas City Fire Department historian Ray Elder, who was kind enough to lend it to us for this week’s column.