The Little Bridge That Could: Restoration Project Along Katy Trail Nears Milestone

A coalition in Boonville is raising money to restore the Katy Bridge so people using the Katy Trail can cross it.  Jane/Creative Commons Flickr
A coalition in Boonville is raising money to restore the Katy Bridge so people using the Katy Trail can cross it. Jane/Creative Commons Flickr

A decade ago, the Katy Bridge, an elegant lift-span railroad crossing on the Missouri River at Boonville, was about to be torn down and used piecemeal for a new steel bridge downstream.

In August, the Katy Bridge Coalition and the city of Boonville expect to finally have the money needed to start restoring the bridge so it can be part of the 237-mile Katy Trail, the longest rails-to-trails route in the country.

“It’s a real grass roots community project — we just weren’t going to let them take it,” said Sarah Gallagher, the coalition’s president, referring to Union Pacific Railroad and then-Gov. Matt Blunt, who supported the demolition.

Donations targeted for the first phase of the project have nearly reached the $700,000 goal, with only $32,000 of tax credit money left to allocate before the fundraising is complete.

Approximately $430,000 comes from a transportation enhancement grant from the Missouri Department of Transportation, according to Kate Fjell, assistant to the city administrator of Boonville. The coalition also received $124,000 in tax credits from the state that give back 50 cents in credits for every $1 donation. The final $120,000 is split between previous donations to the Katy Bridge Coalition and Boonville’s Katy Bridge Redevelopment Fund.

The bridge project is expected to cost between $4 million and $6 million and take about a decade. The first phase involves bridging a 62-foot gap on the south side of the bridge, as well as rehabbing the next 250 feet, with concrete replacing the railroad ties and rails, so people will be able to walk out onto the bridge. The coalition plans to build an access road to the bridge and a parking lot so that it will be easily accessible to Katy Trail users and tourists.

Now, Katy Trail bikers and hikers are sent on a detour to the U.S. 40 bridge across the Missouri River several hundred feet downstream from the historic Missouri-Kansas-Texas rail bridge, the only break in the trail from St. Charles to Clinton.

Gallagher believes the rejoining of the rail bridge into the original route will allow trail users to fully appreciate the beauty of the bridge and its view of the Missouri River, and increase tourism.

Gallagher hopes fundraising goals for phases two and three will be more easily achieved once people can walk onto the south end of the bridge and get an idea of what the panoramic view from the middle of the bridge would be like. Those phases will focus on repairing the lift span and the north end of the bridge in Howard County, as well as re-routing the Katy Trail to connect it to the original bridge crossing.

A fence obstructs the view of the south side Katy Bridge and the current 62 foot gap. Michaela Marshall Dungey/Missouri Business Alert
A fence obstructs the view of the south side of the Katy Bridge and the current 62 foot gap. Michaela Marshall Dungey/Missouri Business Alert

The original railroad bridge at Boonville was built in 1873. The current bridge was built in 1932 and at the time was the nation’s longest lift-span bridge. It uses a counterweight system and could be raised or lowered in 70 seconds. The design was cutting edge in the Depression era, and it has been used as a model for several other lift-span bridges, Gallagher said.

In 1986, after the MKT went out of business, the bridge was rail banked by the Department of Natural Resources as a means of transportation in case of a national emergency, while the rest of the MKT rail line was converted into the Katy Trail.

After being declared a safety hazard by the Coast Guard in 2004, Blunt asked Union Pacific to relocate the bridge spans for use on a new bridge across the Osage River. Jay Nixon, who was Missouri’s attorney general at the time, challenged the decision in court. Nixon argued that since the bridge was part of the original MKT line and had been rail banked, it belonged to the citizens of Boonville.

After becoming governor in 2010, Nixon applied for and was granted federal stimulus money that was allocated toward the development of the Osage Bridge, allowing the Katy Bridge to be handed over to the town’s citizens.

Gallagher emphasized that the restoration project is not just based upon the sentimental value of the bridge, but also its functional value.

“It can’t just be for the sentimental reasons; it needs to have real economic potential to work,” Gallagher said. Boonville, she added, “lost 1,500 jobs in the last two years. Tourism is our stock and trade.”

Gallagher stressed that tourism, including historic attractions, is the second-largest industry in the state, and people come from all over the world to travel on the Katy Trail. In time, the bridge restoration project will pay itself off with additional tourism revenue, she said.

Still, Gallagher appreciates the historical importance and beauty of the “crown jewel” of the Katy Trail.

“You cannot throw money at everything,” Gallagher said. “This is a piece of art. If it were a Picasso sitting out there would you want to blow it up?”

Gallagher, who is in her 60s, hopes that one day young Missourians will appreciate the historical importance of the bridge just as much as people from her generation.

“I realize I’ll never bike the trail,” she said. “It’s the younger generation that will appreciate the saving of something that is an engineering masterpiece.”

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