Willard Winner’s bridge
Probably most people driving over the Heart of America bridge between Kansas City and North Kansas City hardly notice an adjacent railroad bridge, usually known as the ASB after Armour and Swift, the meatpacking companies, and Burlington, the railway company, that completed the bridge’s construction in 1911, but that was once known as the Winner Bridge after a real estate developer with the appropriate name of Willard Winner. There was surely a time a century ago when the name “Winner Bridge” was so synonymous with unfinished work that people might have said things like “Fred will fix that roof just as soon as the Winner Bridge gets finished.”
Willard E. Winner had a mixed reputation. An article in the St. Louis Globe Democrat in 1891 called him “the genius of the Kansas City boom.” By 1891, Winner’s many enterprises were in the hands of the banks; once envied and maligned, he was now pitied: “Sympathy is showered on him,” the paper reported. If Winner should die tomorrow, it predicted, the city’s Commercial Club would build him a monument inscribed with the words “He did more than any of us for Kansas City.”
Winner had started the Winner Investment Company on a shoestring a few years earlier, just as the real estate boom was beginning. By the time it ended the company had $3 million in assets. Winner developed thirty-seven additions, was closing on his thirty-eighth and working on the construction of a massive transportation complex that would include a union depot for lines entering the city when the crash came.
People on the north side of the river were excited about the plan and despite the collapse of Winner’s real estate empire, hoped his bridge would be completed. Cottonwood Falls was selected to provide the stone for the nine giant piers the bridge would sit on. The piers were finished in 1890. At that point, funding ceased and the saga of the unfinished bridge began. In 1892 it was reported that a company had been formed that would complete the bridge, once legal issues were resolved.
In 1893 the Engineering News reported that the Union Security Company had been organized and capitalized to buy the facilities, under foreclosure, and complete the bridge and railway. The company’s president was Theodore Bates of Boston, who got the property for $75,000 and the bridge for $125,000 -- the piers alone had cost almost half a million dollars. Bates was quoted as predicting Kansas City would be “the greatest city between Chicago and the Pacific Coast,” but the betting was that he was only a placeholder for the Armour-Swift interests, who wanted the bridge for their own purposes, not for northland development. [1893-02-06-NewtonDlyRpblcn-p1-WinnerBridgeSold]
Construction didn’t go ahead, however, because of a dispute over a clause in its federal charter requiring the bridge company to provide a free wagon road. Some Kansas City businessmen traveled to Washington to persuade Congress to remove the provision, but northlanders opposed the change, as did the Commercial Club in Kansas City. Bates’ company claimed that the free driveway was not part of the original deal Winner had made with property owners. Liberty and Clay county property owners disagreed, holding a meeting where the company’s view was called “attempted robbery.”
95 percent of the people of Kansas City opposed the change, said one speaker. A representative of the bondholders told the gathering that the company would never complete the bridge under the “free road” arrangement. It was “a business proposition and nothing more…. If you today vote against the change in the charter,” he said, “you vote against any bridge at all.” They voted against the change, but the Journal was confident that the bridge would soon be built, since the owners “realize they have in their possession very valuable property.”
The free road debate continued through 1893. The Kansas City Mail thought that a free wagon bridge would be “worth a great deal more to Kansas City and Clay county than would be a double track railroad bridge.” There were, the editors pointed out, already three railroad bridges, “enough to do the business for twenty years to come,” although the Winner route was the most direct to Clay County and points northeast. Mr. Bates, said the Populist-oriented paper, is “a smooth individual” with less than admirable ethics, but he can’t scare Clay County farmers.
More citizens of Clay County, as well as citizens of Platte and Clinton Counties, met, this time to support eliminating the free driveway provision and completing the bridge. It had become a partisan issue, Republicans favoring the bridge completion, and Democrats, at least as represented by the Kansas City Times, opposing it with the argument that retaining the free highway clause “is not calculated to attract the expenditure of such enormous sums of money as are required to complete this enterprise,” The Times regarded it as an unfair imposition by Congress to require a railroad company to build and maintain a free road at its own expense, with no compensation in the form of tolls, especially in the midst of an economic depression.
The giant stone piers of the nascent bridge remained unused, a hazard to riverboats riding the Missouri’s powerful currents. In April, the A.L. Mason hit one of the piers; the St. Louis Republic described her as arriving from Kansas City a few days later looking “a little disfigured.” The redoubtable George Keith, legendary river boatman, arrived to assume command of the battered Mason for the return trip to Kansas City. A few months later, en route to New Orleans, the Mason hit a snag and went to the bottom.
Two years later, the free bridge issue had not been resolved; the bridge project survived in the realm of rumor. The Leavenworth Times and Kansas City Gazette waged a small editorial war over the matter, the Times favoring imposition of a toll if it meant the bridge would be completed, the Gazette remarking sarcastically on its rival’s “generous” proposal that would fortuitously “dam the tide of traffic “going northeast, diverting it northwest, toward Leavenworth. There was a rumor that the Illinois Central might want to use the Winner Bridge and was buying up adjacent property for the purpose; there was another rumor in 1896 that the bridge would soon be finished to serve the new Kansas City and Northern Connecting Railway.
In 1897 surveyors for the same railway were observed running a line that seemed to point to a connection with a different bridge, suggesting the railway was not interested in completing the Winner bridge, but a few days later Mr. Theodore Bates himself came to town to speak to the Commercial Club. He put on an elaborate stereopticon presentation depicting a new union depot, 600” in length, not including train sheds, modeled on St. Louis’ depot, situated between Locust and Holmes Streets, stretching nearly to Independence Avenue, that would replace the shabby depot in the West Bottoms. The massive existing bridge piers would be reduced in height by forty feet so as to be nearly on a line with the elevation of the proposed depot, and upper and lower train decks constructed. Some of the immense stone blocks were sold to the Old Soldiers’ home in Leavenworth, where they were incorporated into a watch house and guest house at the west entrance to the grounds. Other stones went into construction of a commercial building at Eighteenth and Holmes in Kansas City, now demolished.
In addition to the tracks, “a wagon way is planned on either side of the bridge,” Bates told Club members, though he said nothing about whether it would be free. The bridge, Bates continued, would be a vertical lift bridge instead of a draw bridge, a revolutionary concept at the time. Bates went into some detail about how the lift would be powered. “No steam railroad bridge has ever been constructed with a lift span,” the members were told, “but it has been found to be entirely feasible in several notable instances, and much more convenient than the customary drawbridge, being more easily and expeditiously operated.”
Not everyone was sold on Bates’ ambitious plans, including some who wanted another site for a new depot. Mr. Bates put away his stereopticon, returned to Boston, and nothing more was heard of the matter for several years while Bates was involved in legal tussles. A pair of local bankers, Joseph S. Chick and heirs of the recently deceased Hiram Northrup won a judgment against him for $15,750 in a dispute over the right of way in 1897, and in the same year a Baltimore businessman threatened proceedings against Bates for embezzlement. The man claimed Bates had raised money selling stock in the Kansas City Bridge and Terminal Company, then instead of completing the work on the project, invested the proceeds in “outside speculation.”
Apparently the threat was not carried through and the indefatigable Willard Winner returned to the scene, spinning elaborate plans for connecting Kansas City to outlying communities through a system of interurban railways crossing his imaginary bridge. Kansas City would soon become “the center from which will radiate a large number of interurban electric lines, connecting all the towns and cities within a radius of 100 miles or even more, “the Kansas City Journal predicted. One line would run to Topeka, another to Leavenworth, while Winner projected a line through Platte City to St. Joseph; still other lines were projected to Liberty and Linville. The completion of the lines all hinged on completion of the Winner Bridge, the shortest route to the northland from downtown Kansas City, and on whether the bridge company would set “a reasonable toll for crossing the river,” in the words of a citizen involved in creation of the Platte City Electric Railway Company.
Electrically-powered interurban railways were the latest thing in Eastern cities, he said, and greatly increased the value of real estate near the line, but a bill to approve the Winner depot and allow completion of the Winner bridge languished in the Missouri Senate as the nineteenth century neared its conclusion. A Bates’ representative, K. M. DeWeese, admitted there was a general feeling among the public that “the bridge will never be constructed,” but he claimed that the prospects actually “seem brighter every day.” “Eastern capitalists” were said to be ready to begin construction of suburban electric lines, just as soon as the bridge was completed. Later in 1899, however, after plans for the bridge were approved in Washington, Mr. DeWeese admitted that the bridge might never be built: “There will be no bridge there, certainly, until there is a greater demand for it than there is now,” he said.
Through 1900 rumors continued to circulate about “a deal of gigantic proportions” involving the redoubtable Willard Winner and an electric railway to St. Joseph, “or he may conclude, after he has it built, that steam is a better motive power,” said the St. Joseph Gazette hopefully. Willard was said to be buying up railway franchises, preparatory to completing his eponymous bridge. Winner was also continuing to develop, or proposing to continue development of, the Kansas City, Lawrence and Topeka Railway, which to date had been stalled. The company president, H.G. Pert, defended Winner from the “unfriendly feeling of many people” in Lawrence, suggesting that if they continued their attacks he might abandon his efforts. The fact that the Winner bridge had never been completed was not Winner’s fault, said Pert: “the cause of not completing it was dissensions among the officials and not from lack of funds and dissensions and litigations have prevailed instead of work ever since.” The KC, L& T railway would surely be completed, as had “almost very large enterprise” Winner had taken up, he concluded. But Winner’s railway would never reach Topeka, or even Lawrence: it ran a mere seven miles, to suburban communities Merriam and Olathe Kansas, a route which did not require crossing the Missouri River.
Thus the twentieth century opened with Winner’s bridge unfinished but with new promises by the Kansas City and Atlantic Railway Company that it would be finished “at once” and used by the Baltimore & Ohio and Chicago & Northwestern railroads. Perhaps the most interesting feature of this announcement was that Frank D. Moore, described as the “architect and builder” of the Eads bridge in St. Louis would design the bridge, although James B. Eads is usually credited as the designer and builder of the innovative bridge named after him, considered by some one of the greatest bridges ever built. No matter: it was another pipe dream, as was the report of the Leavenworth Times that an electric line would be constructed from Kansas City to St. Joseph, crossing the completed Winner Bridge: “it is expected,” reported the Daily Champion of Atchison mockingly, running its story under the headline “Today’s Electric Line Story,” that the line would be in operation by the fall of 1901.
Enthusiasm over electric interurban lines continued to keep the Winner Bridge story alive, even as the first automobiles powered by internal combustion engines were appearing on European roadways, agents of doom for streetcars. In 1902 yet another plan was rumored about plans for a Kansas City to St. Joseph electric line, backed by a Cleveland company, crossing, of course, the still nonexistent Winner Bridge, and in the following year, little Albany, Missouri, was hopeful of getting a line, with local businessman buying shares in the company that proposed to run a line through three counties in northwest Missouri.
This scheme ended soon after in what the local paper called a “disastrous termination,” with invested funds disappearing, but as late as 1909 an Albany resident, Col. J.H. Birch, was still hopeful an electric line would be built from Albany to Kansas City, since the Swift and Armour concerns had bought the bridge in 1903, presumably intent on finishing construction at long last. The northland had, he wrote to the Albany Ledger, “the finest agricultural country in the west,” yet lacked adequate access to the city: “The people on the south and west of Kansas City are building these electric lines, but on the north side … no movement in that direction has been started.”
In 1909, steel was ordered for the bridge, or so rumor went, the Daily Gazette of Lawrence reported, making a little pun at the expense of Willard Winner: “That word is spelled ‘steel’ this time. You know how it has been spelled before in the Winner enterprises.” This time, the rumor was true: in December, 1911, work on the vertical lift bridge was completed, with an upper deck for electric cars and street traffic and a lower deck for steam trains. The lower deck could be raised to allow vessels to pass beneath while the upper deck remained in place. It was a toll bridge that charged 5 cents for foot passengers, 10 cents for a horse and rider, 3 cents per head for sheep, hogs and calves, and 25 cents for a two seat automobile. Most expensive were threshing machines, at 40 cents. The bridge was made free in 1927 when an easement was purchased by Kansas City and Clay County.
The 1954 Kansas City Times story on the bridge revisited the career of Willard Winner, whose goals, it said “were high, his accomplishments were few,” but who deserved remembrance for some of his real estate ventures, for setting aside land between Kansas City and Independence that became one of the city’s favorite recreational spots, Fairmount Park, and more tangentially for suggesting the idea of an underground parking lot near the Municipal Auditorium, a project which took shape after Winner’s death in 1929 and continues in use.
Northland residents continue to have problems with bridges over the Missouri. Threshing machines and carriages no longer cross the ASB/Winner bridge, but tolls were an issue on the Broadway bridge and the old Paseo Bridge, slowing traffic. A 1967 Times story described two and three mile long lines waiting to cross the Paseo span during rush hour, and even in 1967 there were complaints about pigeons clustering on the ASB bridge.
Now northland residents face the prospect of a yearlong closure for repairs of another bridge, the Broadway Bridge, now the John Jordan “Buck” O'Neil Memorial Bridge after the great Negro Leagues first baseman, not so long after a long closure during construction of the new Christopher S. Bond bridge to the east. The O’Neill Bridge is a youngster compared to Winner’s: it was completed in 1956, but repairs might cost as much as $20 million, unless a complete replacement, at $100 million, is needed.
A third option, leaving the O’Neill bridge in service while a new bridge is built that would make a direct connection with Interstate 35, eliminating the current bottleneck access to the bridge. It would cost $200 million, but the 40,000 drivers who use the old bridge every day would then not have to find another way to get home.
March 29, 2017