Cape Mississippi River Bridge RIP (Rest in Pieces)

The old Cape Mississippi River Traffic Bridge was an adolescent adrenaline rush, a white-knuckled journey of fear and angst; it was an inconvenience, it was the site of personal and family tragedy. It also opened up Cape Girardeau to Illinois and points east when it became the first bridge across the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Memphis.

It was a part of our lives, indicated by the number and variety of the comments left on yesterday’s post about a crash on the bridge.  The span, which was 4,744 feet, 4 inches long, opened to traffic August 22, 1928. A contractor used explosives to drop the bridge into the Mississippi August 3, 2004.

The approach to nowhere

The steelwork has all been removed, but they were still working on removing the bridge piers when I shot this photo from the Illinois side of the river in October of 2004.

Piers the last to go

The massive piers that held the bridge up were the last parts to be demolished. This photo shows the flood gates that are closed, blocking north and south rail traffic when the river gets high. I prowled around under the bridge here and picked up a few souvenir pieces of steel. The Missourian said 160,000 rivets were used in building the bridge.

Missouri approach turned into scenic viewing area

The decorative archway over the Cape approach to the bridge has been preserved and a portion of the span has been turned into an attractive viewing area. I wish that the whole bridge could have been preserved for bicycles and pedestrians like the Chain of Rocks Bridge north of St. Louis, but the Coast Guard considered having two bridges that close together to be a navigation hazard.

Mississippi River Traffic Bridge Photo Gallery

Here is a collection of photos taken of the bridge’s last days in the fall of 2004. Click on any photo to make it larger, then click on the left or right side of the image to move through the gallery.

Crash on the Bridge

Crossing the bridge was a rite of passage

Crossing the Mississippi River Traffic Bridge was a rite of passage when you first got your driver’s license. No bridge in the world ever felt higher, longer or narrower. It didn’t just LOOK narrow, it WAS narrow. It was common to see splintered reflective glass on the deck from when 18-wheelers slapped mirrors.

All I know about this wreck was that the negative sleeve was slugged Don Call Wreck 1966. I’m assuming that one of the folks in the pictures is Don Call, but I don’t know that for sure. Since I didn’t know the month, I didn’t bother to try to find it in The Missourian.

Safety belts weren’t common

You can tell that this was taken in the era before seat belt usage became common. The windshield has the characteristic dimple caused by someone’s head bouncing off it.

Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge no challenge

On my last trip to Cape before the bridge was torn down, I planned to ride my bicycle across it. I figured if I did it on a Sunday morning, traffic would be light enough that it wouldn’t be a factor. When I drove across it, though, I didn’t like the looks of the expansion joints. Some of them had a wide gap that would swallow up a bike tire and some of the others were sticking up like jagged teeth.

I wasn’t sure which would be a worse fate: to be doing 20 or 25 miles an hour on the downhill stretch and have your front tire eaten by a gap, which would launch you over the bars and into the river or to blow a tire and have to carry your bike all the way across the bridge with traffic backing up behind you.

I wonder what kids will do for a challenge these days? The SHOULDER on the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge is almost as wide as the traffic lane on the old bridge.

I opted not to do the ride.


So many readers left comments about the bridge that I did a follow-up story on the last days of the bridge in October 2004.

Nighttime Old Town Cape from the Common Pleas Courthouse

I have a favorite night shot of the Common Pleas Courthouse and Port Cape Girardeau taken from the Themis St. floodgate looking west, so I thought I’d see what it looked like from the other side.

This is shooting down the courthouse hill looking east down Themis St. The floodgate at the end of the street is closed because the Mississippi River is at about 36 feet.

Loose shot or tight shot?

I couldn’t decide whether or not I liked it as a wideangle or a slightly tighter photo. Electrons are cheap, so you get both.

There are some tiny smudges in the tight shot in the middle of the sky. You can calls them puffs of smoke if you like, but I think they are specular highlights from the street lights bouncing around between the lens elements. What the heck, let’s go back to calling them puffs of smoke. That sounds more interesting.

Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge from the Courthouse

While putzing around trying to get this shot composed, (for the record, I don’t care much for it) a young woman materialized from the shadows. We exchanged some pleasantries and she disappeared. There was an elderly gentleman sitting on a park bench nearby and he said, “Do you reckon we scared her off?”

Shana Gemoules, stairclimber supreme

About five minutes later, she showed up again.

“Did you just run up those courthouse stairs? Twice? On purpose?”

“Yes. It was three times.Yes. I’m training for a triathlon in Florida in April.”

When she disappeared down the hill again, the man on the park bench said, “Tell her there are 55 steps, not counting the landings.”

When she got back to the top, she was barely breathing hard and her heart rate was in the low 170s (resting is usually 52 BPM, she said.) A stint of working in a downtown restaurant where she had to hump meals up three floors prepared her for running up and down the courthouse steps, she said.

Getting ready to go car-free

Shana, who grew up in Perryville, graduated from Southeast Missouri State University and has worked at a variety of local resturaunts. She’s at Imo’s Pizza now, a place she rates highly for its employee-friendly management and good food.

Right now, she’s working to get debt-free and to sell her car to cut expenses. Cape is small enough that she feels like she can get around on foot or or her bike. Her boyfriend lives in a house with three other guys. The four of them make do with one car for those times when they go a long distance or need to carry something bulky.

When she finished her fifth climb up the hill, she said she was going to call it a night. All of the talk about food and restaurants had made her hungry.

I waited until she had run out of sight before I headed to my car. I wasn’t going to insult her or embarrass me by offering her a ride.

Cape Bridge at Night

When I didn’t know what else to do, I’d head down to the river to try for a different shot of the bridge. This is a time exposure taken from the Illinois side looking back toward Cape.

The car and truck lights show up as streaks.

Trust me, this will NOT be the last bridge picture you see.