Thebes Railroad Bridge

Southeast Missourian webmaster and bridgehunter James Baughn had a piece on photographing the world’s largest operating steam engine when it crossed over the Thebes Railroad Bridge in 2004. That got me to rooting around for some of the photos I’ve shot of it over the years.

Thebes in 2010

It’s hard to get a feel for just how massive this bridge is from a distance. This photo was taken this spring when the Mississippi River was above flood stage. What used to be downtown Thebes has been reduced to a few roads, some foundations and some park structures.

Thebes in 1966

This shot of the bridge from the Thebes Courthouse in 1966 shows the same area before the floods of 1973 and 1993 took their toll on the town.

Railroad Bridge and Thebes Courthouse

I’ll have more photos of the Thebes Courthouse when I run across a few more. The courthouse was built in 1848 out of local sandstone, hewn timbers, hand-sawed boards, plaster and with a split shingle roof.

Dred Scott was imprisoned in a dungeon below the courthouse.

Bridge built in 1905

James’ BridgeHunter site has additional photos, including some of it under construction. His information says it was built in 1905 by a consortium of five railroad companies.

The massive structure is beginning to show its age. I can’t remember ever seeing it when it was freshly painted. It still carries a lot of Union Pacific rail traffic on its two tracks. I’ve read that there was talk about the bridge carrying automobile traffic as well as trains, but the Cape Girardeau Traffic Bridge killed off that idea.

Pier stone weighs 6,000 pounds

To give another idea of its size, the plaque on this stone says it is “Original handhewn pier block from the Mississippi River Bridge at Thebes built in 1905. Recovered from the river in 1990. Block weight 6,000 lbs.”

Piers dwarf Honda Odyssey

The huge piers on the Illinois side of the river dwarf my Honda Odyssey.

I left a comment on the Bridgehunter site:

As the cub reporter fresh out of high school, I ended up writing an awful lot of obits for The Southeast Missourian.

One, in particular, stuck out in my mind. The singular most exciting thing in this woman’s life was that she was on the first train to cross the Thebes RR bridge. I thought it was sad that that was the high point of her life.

What does it say about the arc of my life and career that I would remember that woman four decades later?

17 Replies to “Thebes Railroad Bridge”

  1. Ken, interesting last comment. I was thinking today about what I would consider the most exciting times of my life beyond my marriage and the birth of my child. I decided that I could think of a lot of interesting people who I’ve met, places where I have been, work I’ve done, etc., but of no one experience that dwarfs the others. That feels right for me.

    1. What? Y’all question the sign out in front of the courthouse?

      Next thing you’ll tell me is that Lincoln and Douglas didn’t debate there.

      There’s so little of Thebes left that we shouldn’t strip them of all their history, even if it’s not necessarily true.

      I mean, after all, Cape has all of those secret tunnels used by slaves riding the Underground Railroad….

  2. Randy Morse and I were visiting the Thebes courthouse for some unknown reason in the early 60’s. An older gentleman was telling us about Lincoln & Douglas debating. Randy said “Yeah…they debated whether to stay or go on. They went on.” We had a good laugh, but I doubt the man was amused.

  3. Page 721 of the July 1905 Popular Mechanics has an article on the construction of the bridge.
    3817 feet long, Ralph Majeska, engineer
    Cost 2.8 million and sixteen lives to build.
    Nearly a million cubic feet of concrete and 28 million pounds of steel.

  4. Interested in your pictures of Thebes Railroad Bridge. Great quality! Picture titled “Thebes 1966” clearing showing my Grandparent’s home and the Bridge. Have been searching for such picture! Please contact me. Thanks

  5. RE: “One, in particular, stuck out in my mind. The singular most exciting thing in this woman’s life was that she was on the first train to cross the Thebes RR bridge. I thought it was sad that that was the high point of her life.”

    One must consider the monumental achievement that the construction of the bridge represented in 1905. In many ways for her it was similar to what was accomplished by Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969.

  6. My grandfather, Bart Tippet, worked on this bridge. In 1905 he married a local girl, Nellie Cotner, from East Cape Girardeau. They had two sons, Leon (my father) and Victor (whom I am named after). Nellie died in 1909 and my grandfather moved to Chicago, became a member of Structural Ironworkers Union, Local #1. He was an Ironworker, as was my dad Leon, until he died in 1949. I’m proud of both my grandfather and my father. They were people who had a hand in building this great country. I am glad to see things like the Thebes bridge still stands as sort of a monument to their hard work.

  7. Victor Tippet (previous post) and I are cousins, his father and my mother were half siblings. Bart Tippet who is mentioned above in Vic’s post married my grandmother Mary McVennon when he moved to Chicago and had my mother Alta Mae. My cousin Vic, his sisters Kay, Diane and I are quite proud of our Grandfather, his heritage and the Tippet Family. If anyone is interested I have several photos (professionally taken) of the Thebes bridge while under construction, showing the ironworker crew and the wooden framing they used to work from. I can email them to interested parties.

  8. I live in what used to be named Illmo , MO. The Missouri side of the train bridge and have been on top of the train bridge and crossed it several times in my life. I would love to see original photos of the Thebes bridge being built.

    1. The museum in the Thebes courthouse produced an excellent DVD collection of photos of the railroad bridge. Some of the ones of it under construction are outstanding. I’m not sure if it is available for purchase.

  9. Ken, I came across this site as I was looking up info on the Thebes Railroad Bridge. My wife had a great uncle who I believe worked on the bridge. The family had a number of old photos of bridges and some are marked Thebes. I suspect they may be stock images from the time. Would you have a suggestion of who to contact to see if any of the pics are new ?

    1. The Thebes Courthouse historical group has done a great job rehabbing the courthouse and collecting artifacts, including vintage photos of the bridge construction. They are closed for the window, but I would imagine they would respond to a query. Here’s their Facebook page.

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