Bridge to the Future

Hannibal Bridge, looking northeast from the south side of the Missouri River.

Hannibal Bridge, looking northeast from the south side of the Missouri River.

Hannibal Bridge in the open position to allow boats to pass through

Hannibal Bridge in the open position to allow boats to pass through

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:

View images of people and places associated with the Hannibal Bridge that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

Check out the following books and articles about the Hannibal Bridge held by the Kansas City Public Library:

Continue researching the Hannibal Bridge using archival material held by the Missouri Valley Special Collections:


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.

Jason Roe

About the Author

Jason Roe is a digital history specialist at the Kansas City Public Library, content manager and editor for the Civil War on the Western Border website, and the author of the Library's popular "This Week in Kansas City History" column. Prior to joining the Library, he earned his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012. While at KU, he was named the 2011-2012 Richard and Jeanette Sias Graduate Fellow at the Hall Center for the Humanities, and he received the History Department's 2012 George L. Anderson Award for Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation for his work, "From the Impoverished to the Entitled: The Experience and Meaning of Old Age in America since the 1950s." He enjoys tackling a wide variety of projects relating to U.S. and local history.


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