Memories of railroad resonate

Tuesday, September 14, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:13 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 5, 2008

Wayne Lammers can still feel the shudder of the massive steel bridge, the powerful gust of wind and steam spilling from the locomotive. He can still hear the rattling of the tracks and the piercing engine whistle. He remembers how the camera was shaking, how scared he was and how he was close enough to touch the engine.

That was 18 years ago, when Lammers videotaped the last train to cross the Missouri River railroad bridge at Boonville. Now the bridge is still. Overgrown with foliage and overtaken with rust, the only sound comes not from train whistles but from the traffic on the nearby highway bridge.

The railroad bridge, which closed in 1986, is scheduled to come down this fall.

Roger Wiebusch of the U.S. Coast Guard said the bridge poses an obstruction to navigation because barges must maneuver around the piers.

Union Pacific Railroad plans to take four of the five spans down intact and float them down the river on barges for expansion of a railroad bridge in Osage City. The center span will be demolished, along with the piers, and the debris removed from the Missouri River.

“When I was a teenager, I loved to watch the trains go by,” said Lammers, a local historian, videographer and photographer. “I used to go watch the bridge operator raise and lower the bridge. I got to know how it operated and about all the mechanisms and I just fell in love with it from that day on.”

The bridge was first built in 1874 as part of the MKT Railroad. It was the first bridge built by the MKT and provided a direct line to Chicago, which was at the time the railroad capital of the world, according to “The Katy Railroad and the Last Frontier.”

The bridge was overwhelmed by heavy traffic and larger railroad cars, and in 1932 a new structure replaced it. The new bridge included a 408-foot lift span that at the time was the longest railroad span in the country that allowed the center span to be lifted to provide clearance for boats to pass.

“This is an architectural wonder,” said Doug Elley, who owns a building in downtown Boonville. “So many times I’ve watched the sunset streaming through that bridge. More generations need to get up

close and see that. The closer you get, the more mesmerizing it is.”

Much of the city of Boonville is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. An important part of that history can be accredited to the MKT Railroad and the “first of its kind” railroad bridge.

Lammers said he feels humbled by the bridge “because of all the people who spent a lot of blood, sweat and tears building that big old thing and all that it did for the community. This town just won’t be the same without the bridge. There will just be an empty feeling for those who feel strongly about the Katy rail.”

The MKT railroad was bought by the Union Pacific in 1988, but it had already made a huge impact on the city of Boonville. Lammers said the Katy was a big part of the war effort in the 1940s when up to 60 trains a day would cross the bridge. It helped ship oil, troops and arms across the country. It also brought bricks, feed and other supplies that helped build up Boonville.

“Boonville has been shaped by transportation,” said Sarah Gallagher, Economic Development Director of Boonville. “We’re a river city, a railroad city. We’ve had the best of the best because we’re a hub of transportation.”

Union Pacific will fund the project under orders of the Coast Guard. Osage Constructors will remove the bridge and construct the new one. The removal of the bridge did not occur until now because Union Pacific was looking for uses for the bridge before tearing it down.

“We’re not really in a position to finance everyone’s historical projects,” said Bill Stapp, manager of bridge construction for Union Pacific. “There’s a lot of history in the railroad and we can’t preserve it all. We wouldn’t be opposed to giving it to someone if they came up with funding.”

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