Fourteen years ago today, a “rededication ceremony” was held for the McKinley Bridge, which links St. Louis, Missouri, with Venice, Illinois by crossing the Mississippi River. The bridge had first been dedicated 100 years earlier, on November 17, 1907.
President William McKinley had been assassinated just a few years before (on September 14, 1901), and many believed then (and now) that the bridge was named for the fallen president. However, it was not; it was named for another William McKinley – William B. McKinley, chief executive of the Illinois Traction System (ITS) interurban railway. That McKinley paid for the bridge to be designed by the noted engineer Ralph Modjeski and then constructed by Missouri Valley Bridge & Iron Co. and Pennsylvania Steel Co.
For the first several years of its operation the McKinley Bridge was used solely for Illinois Traction System traffic over the Mississippi. As automobiles and trucks grew in number the bridge also served motor vehicle traffic.
The ITS and the ITC
William B. McKinley consolidated a number of interurban railroads in the late 1890s and early 1900s. The company was named the Illinois Traction System (ITS); it was a heavy-duty interurban electric railroad that provided extensive passenger and freight business in central and southern Illinois from 1896 to 1956. The ITS was an affiliate of the Illinois Power and Light Company (many electric railroads/streetcar companies were owned by local electricity providers).
At its zenith, ITS provided electric passenger rail service to 550 miles of tracks in central and southern Illinois. The company had a Y-shaped main line that ran from St. Louis to Springfield, Illinois; branches ran from “Springfield northwest to Peoria and eastward to Danville.” In addition, ITS had a number of affiliated street-level city trolley lines. They provided local passenger service in many of the cities served by the main line.
Like many companies, the System fell on hard times during the Great Depression. The company was reorganized in 1937 and its name was changed to the Illinois Terminal Railroad Company (reporting marks ITC). The new name reflected the line’s primary financial source – its freight interchange link to major railroads at its terminal ends (Peoria, Danville and St. Louis). The company’s interurban passenger service declined slowly and was stopped in 1956.
Although freight operations continued, they were constrained by “ever-tighter runs due to very sharp radius turns in some towns.” Therefore, freight operations required the use of short trains and special hardware. ITC built bypass trackage around some towns for freight trains to partially solve this problem. However, because of the difficulty operating in some towns along its route, ITC was purchased in 1956 by a group of connecting railroads.
U.S. Route 66 (US 66) was established in 1926. Better known simply as Route 66, it is one of the most storied highways in the United States. The McKinley Bridge was the original crossing for Route 66 over the Mississippi River. The bridge carried US 66 for four years; however, a new alignment for the highway changed its Mississippi River crossing to the Chain of Rocks Bridge.
As noted above, the McKinley Bridge was built originally as a railroad bridge. However, the bridge’s rail line was closed in 1978. The tracks were removed from the bridge and additional lanes were opened for motor vehicle traffic.
Closing the bridge and new life
At some point the bridge’s owner became the city of Venice, which operated it as a toll bridge. After decades of disrepair, the McKinley Bridge was closed in 2001. Major structural repairs were needed; however, the structural repairs did not begin until 2004 and then took three years. The delay was due primarily to the bridge’s unpaid taxes, which were owed by Venice. An agreement was reached in June 2003; Illinois and Missouri became joint owners of the bridge and were then responsible for its maintenance.
The “new” McKinley Bridge has three of its original river truss spans (each 519-feet long) and 33 steel plate girder spans. Its total length is 4,162.5 feet.
So, on Saturday, November 17, 2007, hundreds of people were present for the bridge’s rededication. As part of the celebration, the newly restored bridge was initially opened for pedestrians and bicyclists only from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. that day. Motor vehicles began to use the bridge again on December 17, 2007.
William B. McKinley
What happened to William B. McKinley, who paid for the McKinley Bridge? He was a very successful businessman for several decades. He then tried his hand at politics. He ran for a seat on the Champaign, Illinois city council in 1891, but was defeated. But he did not give up. He was elected to a seat on the University of Illinois Board of Trustees in 1902. Then, in 1904 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He served six terms as a Member of Congress, and then was elected to the U.S. Senate.