Springfield’s Jefferson Avenue Footbridge has been a city landmark since 1902, but was closed in March 2016 due to safety concerns.
Click-clacking trains have trundled below Springfield’s Jefferson Avenue Footbridge for longer than anyone alive can remember. After all, the year was 1902 when the iconic structure was added to Commercial Street’s skyline. Since then, generations have utilized the bridge; both to travel, and to simply watch the trains.
But the bridge wasn’t built to be a landmark. Instead, safety prompted its presence: A concern, in twist of irony, that also forced its closure in March 2016.
Today, it’s uncertain when — or if — the structure will reopen. And that question is one that troubles a number of local residents. “(Springfield) was the hub of the railroad, and there’s nothing left,” says historian Richard Crabtree. “I just couldn’t imagine losing another piece of our railroad history. That’d be really sad.”
In the beginning
The bridge was built to solve a problem: In the early 20th century, there wasn’t a great way for people to cross the 16-track train yard. “Folks who lived on the north side were just walking across the rail yards,” says Crabtree, noting it was a practice that greatly concerned the railroad. “They just literally would dodge the trains, and hopped through the cars. It was very dangerous.”
According to “The Jefferson Avenue Foot Bridge,” a document about the bridge’s history, the Frisco went to lengths to keep traffic of its tracks, and even erected buildings at the head of streets that ran across them. For example, the document noted that a “passenger station was built at the head of Benton Avenue, a freight station was constructed on Boonville, and no doubt the Frisco had some interest in placing Commercial Street Fire Department in a position which closed the other end of Boonville.”
After all, Crabtree notes, if a pedestrian was injured while crossing the yard, the railroad was penalized. That liability concerned the Frisco leadership so much that they threatened to move their shops from Springfield — their main hub, where thousands of locals were employed — to Monett because of it.
A plan was put in place to keep that from happening. On Feb. 2, 1901, the Springfield Republican noted that a footbridge would be built over the yards, as well as a “subway” at Lyon Street.
“A letter from President Yoakum of the Frisco to Mayor Walker, received yesterday, clears away any remaining doubt as to the attitude of the Frisco toward this city,” reported the newspaper. “Mr. Yoakum says in unequivocal language that if the proposed improvements are carried out there can be no question of the permanency of the (railroad) shops.”
The newspaper also printed Yoakum’s letter, which said that he was “glad to see the friendly spirit in which the people of Springfield are taking hold of the matter of closing up the dangerous crossings across our yards.”
Building the bridge
Work progressed, but slowly. On June 28, the Republican mentioned that the project’s contract had been awarded to the American Bridge Company for $8,200. But that wasn’t the only item of business: The article also noted that, after adjourning, “the members met informally and agreed upon a fishing trip to the club house on Current River. They will start early Monday morning, July 8, and expect to remain three days.”
Hopefully that fishing trip put council members in a relaxed state of mind, because three months later, work on the bridge still hadn’t started. On Sept. 29, 1901, the Leader-Democrat wrote optimistically that materials for the bridge were expected to arrive in around three weeks, and that work would begin shortly thereafter.
Just a month later, the tone was drastically different.
On Oct. 27, the Republican declared ominously that “the footbridge over Jefferson Street Crossing will not be put in operation soon.” Councilman J.B. Gooch wrote a letter to the bridge company in response to the delay — but the company passed blame elsewhere. “It is very slow work getting material, but we are going right along and doing the best we can, and if you will write me again in three weeks I hope to have more accurate information,” stated the company’s letter.
As it turned out, Springfield didn’t need to respond. On Nov. 19, the Leader-Democrat told that the bridge finally rolled into town. “The city has been waiting impatiently for the arrival of the bridge, and had about given it up,” said the newspaper. “The rumor even gained currency in the city that there was not going to be any foot bridge.”
It also noted that “the parts of the bridge are here now, but it will take some time before it can be set up. It will take a good while to get the affair unloaded, as it is very massive.”
As it turned out, “a good while” translated into ten months. Gradually, it took shape: On Aug. 12, 1902, the Republican reported that the bridge was much larger than many expected — but that citizens of the north side were pleased with it.
“The bridge is now probably the most imposing and interesting structure on the north side and it is a valuable addition to the city,” wrote the newspaper. “The people who live north of the Frisco yards are anxiously awaiting its opening, as the two subways, six blocks apart, are the only outlets by means of which they may reach Commercial Street, unless they go to Broad street or Springfield avenue. Children who are sent to the stores to purchase articles very often ‘take a short cut’ and risk great chances of bodily harm by climbing over and under cars in the yards.”
On Aug. 29, 1902, opening day finally arrived. The bridge’s first traveler was Mrs. Allie Moore, who decided she was not going to wait one more minute to travel across it. “All of the floor had not been put down but when Mrs. Moore stated that she would like to cross a temporary flooring was made of loose planks and she cautiously crossed,” reported the Republican. “Excepting the workmen to put it up, Mrs. Moore was the first person to cross the viaduct.”
A steady stream of people utilized the bridge that day — which ultimately revealed two concerns, neither of which could be remedied.
“The smoke from the locomotives in the yards must necessarily pass through the bridge when the engine passes beneath it, and it is not pleasant to be caught in the smoke,” reported the newspaper. “The black dust from the coal will settle beneath it, and it will become very dirty and a person in crossing will have to be careful not to touch the railings.
And there was another thing, too. “Some people think that it is too high, but it is built at such a height that a man standing on top of the highest car cannot touch it with his hand. If it were not for some this precaution there would be some terrible accidents in the yards which would have resulted in the death of trainmen, and the railroad men say that it is not an inch too high.”
The bridge is shown circa 1905. The picture appeared years later in “Springfield Greets You,” a promotional booklet about the city prepared by the Springfield Chamber of Commerce’s publicity committee. (Courtesy of the Greene County Archive)
Little shows up in searches about the bridge’s early years; in those days, it seemed simply to be. However, 15 years after its completion, Springfield and the Frisco joined forces in a 50-50 partnership to maintain the bridge: Railroad crews did the work, and city funds provided half of the funding.
This arrangement worked well for around 20 years. But in 1936, the bridge’s future was uncertain due to safety concerns. Mayor Harry D. Durst wrote Frisco leadership regarding about the issue:
“I have had this matter up with the city council as well as with a group of outstanding citizens. We all realize this situation and some of us have come to the conclusion that this bridge is an extravagant luxury which does not render the service to justify the expenditures of the cost of maintaining it. I think you will agree with me that it is not an ornament to the city or that particular part of the community.”
An article in the Springfield Leader & Press on May 6, 1936 reported a portion of the public’s opinion on removing the foot bridge.
It seems that public sentiment didn’t fully mesh with Durst’s opinion. “Although city and Frisco engineers have pronounced this ancient footbridge across the Frisco tracks at Commercial and Jefferson unsafe, their opinions have little weight with the people who cross it daily to get to and from work and school,” wrote the Springfield Leader & Press on May 6, 1936.
The article also noted that a proposal to condemn the bridge, advanced by Durst, met strong opposition from merchants on Commercial Street whose businesses were served by the bridge. “As far as the traffic on that bridge is concerned, it is perfectly safe,” stated one of the business men to the newspaper. “It might be a little shaky in a bad windstorm, but normally it’s all right.”
Three days later, city council voted to repair the bridge — only to find out that the city had no funds for such a project. Apparently they found the money somewhere (or perhaps just decided to use the bridge on days without wind).
Becoming a landmark
The bridge went largely without drama until 1954, when the bicycle ramps were removed and replaced by steps. “This renovation caused resentment among mothers who had pushed baby carriages across the bridge and ‘dare devil’ bicyclists who used the ramp as a test course,” wrote “The Jefferson Avenue Foot Bridge.” (Courtesy of Richard Crabtree)
The foot bridge was a landmark — and not only for locals. “Every ‘hoghead’ that’s come to Springfield knew they were getting near the yard when they saw that bridge,” says Crabtree.
But in 1975, its iconic status became official: The bridge was placed on Springfield’s register of historic places. Public Works director Dave Snider accepted a plaque marking the occasion the next year, and noted that the Frisco and the city had just completed the restoration and painting of the structure.
The footbridge is shown in 1976. (Photo by Betty Love; courtesy of the Springfield Leader & Press)
That, however, wasn’t the last heard about the bridge’s repeated renovations. In 1998, the question came up again. Although the Springfield News-Leader recorded some grumbling at the time, $518,000 was gathered to completely restore the bridge in time for its centennial in 2002. The next year, according to the newspaper, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But time marches on. In March 2016, the bridge was closed and fenced after an inspection showed corrosion, as well as a support column’s loss of steel. Great River Engineering, a civil engineering firm based in Springfield, was hired to conduct a study of the structure.
Issues were found: They’re things that, even if fixed, won’t keep the bridge from requiring ongoing maintenance. And they’re findings that have local leaders questioning whether it would be better to simply replace the bridge.
But they want to hear from the public before a decision is made. On Thursday, Nov. 17, the public is invited to attend an informational open house where they can learn more about the various options, and give feedback.
For people like Crabtree, however, there’s only one choice.
“There are a lot of reasons to save the crazy thing,” says Crabtree. “You can’t replace it. If they tore it down and built a bridge, who cares? It’d just be another concrete structure.
“Tearing it down shouldn’t even be an option.”
Want to make your voice heard?
An informational open house is scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 17 from 4 – 6 p.m. at White River Brewing Company (505 W. Commercial St., Springfield) for the public to discuss options for the bridge.
For those who can’t make the meeting, Springfield leaders are soliciting input online as well. Individuals can simply fill out the comment card and submit it to give an opinion.
- The Jefferson Street Foot Bridge, unknown year
- “Gives promise,” Springfield Republican, Feb. 2, 1901
- “Contracts awarded,” Springfield Republican, June 28, 1901
- “Has arrived,” The Leader-Democrat, Nov. 19, 1901
- “Molds removed,” The Leader-Democrat, Sept. 29, 1901
- “The footbridge,” Springfield Republican, Oct. 27, 1901
- “Open to Public,” Springfield Republican, Aug. 30, 1902
- “Citizens willing to use ‘risky’ bridge,” Springfield Leader & Press, May 5, 1936
- “Footbridge now landmark,” Springfield Leader & Press, July 26, 1976
- “Jefferson Avenue Footbridge closed for safety check,” Mollie K. Gavin, March 2, 2016
- “The Eiffel Tower of Springfield faces costly repairs — or demolition,” Alissa Zhu, Springfield News-Leader, October 2016