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?

Don’t Stare at My Mother’s Arm

Liberty with the truth warning: there may be some parts of what you read next that might not exactly be lies, but they stretch the truth to the point of snapping. [The story was originally written to promote the Convention Bureau’s Storytelling Festival.]

What’s the matter with her arm?

Mother couldn’t figure out why my brother Mark’s friends always looked at her funny. They’d appear to be staring, then glance away quickly when she looked at them.

She found out later that Mark had told them, “Don’t stare at my mother’s arm, she’s self-conscious about it.”

“What’s the matter with your mother’s arm,” they’d ask.

It’s a long story

Here’s how he tells it in (mostly) his own words:

After Dad died and all of us boys scattered all over the country, Mother got a little lonely. She was okay financially, but she wanted to do something a little different to keep busy, something that would let her see the sights, be around other people and make herself feel useful.

She was a cook on a riverboat

She decided to work as a cook on a towboat, The Robert Kilpatrick. She worked 20 days on and got 20 days off.

She had her own small utility boat that was kept on the barge on a hoist.  When she  ran low on supplies, she would have the captain radio ahead to the nearest town and give them the “grocery list.”  As they came close to the town, they would lower her boat into the water. She would take off, load up the supplies (the store would meet her at the river with them), and then she’d floor it to catch up with the tow.

One day as the tow was being broken up and put into the lock and dam (modern day tows now “push” as many as 30 barges at a time and dams/locks were not designed to accommodate more than eight at a time, two abreast),  she decided she wouldn’t launch her own boat, she’d stay with the tow. She was getting ready to climb a steel ladder from the the barge  to the top of the lock so she could board a waiting cab to go into town for the supplies when something went terribly wrong.

Tragic accident took her arm

Suddenly the barges shifted in the lock and her arm was caught between the edge of the barge and the concrete dam wall. It pinched it clean off at the elbow.

Tragic, yes, but not enough to keep our mother down.  No  sir.  In fact, some of the guys in the machine shop – the burly  guys who ate steak for breakfast and kept the massive engines working  down below – fashioned her a couple of custom “snap on” tools that were a little more functional than the basic hook that was all insurance would cover.

One was a spatula that could easily turn extra large omelets (and used to scrape the grill to keep food from sticking to it); the other was a meat fork with three tines.  Two tines faced the the same direction so she could pick up meat from the grill, and one tine was bent 90 degrees in the other direction, so she could open and close the oven doors with it.

OSHA said somebody’s gonna get an eye poked out

OSHA thought the custom tools created a hazard to workers who might get impaled if the boat hit rough water and caused her to stumble, so she quit rather than kowtow to bureaucrats.

She became a Happy Hooker

Her next job was working for the city of Cape Girardeau as a wrecker driver.  She drove a tow truck all over town looking for scofflaws who had outstanding parking tickets so she could impound their vehicle.  Nobody ever tried to  stop her after she raised her artificial arm and clicked her custom tool fingers at them like mad magpies.

Prosthetic technology progressed to the point where she decided to give up the hook and custom attachments for an arm that was covered in soft plastic that was almost lifelike. The doctors did a great job of matching her skin tone, too.

She got so she’d play along

When Mark’s friends threw him a surprise 50th birthday party, Mother, Son Adam and I showed up. When she noticed some of the guests giving her arm a quick glance, she pulled her hand up into her sleeve so it looked like she had left her prosthesis  at home.

“You can’t take that slot machine”

Storytelling is in our genes.

My mother’s family owned several businesses in Advance at one time or another. One was a tavern that had a few slot machines to bring in some extra (if illegal) income. Her parents had to leave one afternoon and left her in charge. She was all of about 13 years old.

It must have been an election year, because the place suddenly filled with law enforcement officers who were going to confiscate the slot machines as being illegal gambling devices. Mother knew that one of the machines was full of money, so she stood up to the sheriff and said, “You can’t take that one. It’s broken. If it doesn’t work, it’s no more a gambling machine than that bar stool.”

They left it behind.

Don’t forget the Storytelling Festival

If you made it all the way down here, you must appreciate tall tales. When this story was first published, you could click on the photo below, which would take you to the Convention Bureau’s Storytelling Festival website. I had optimistically written, “It’ll help me convince the convention bureau folks that this would be a great place to advertise, and it’ll set you up for a weekend that sounds like a lot of fun.” It might have done the latter, but the former never happened.

Cape Girardeau’s Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge

I loved the old bridge, don’t get me wrong. Going across that puppy was a rite of passage when you got your driver’s license.

Having said that, the new bridge is beautiful. I’ll post more stuff when I can get home and find my pix of the old bridge, but here are some shots of the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge at night.

View from near the Themis floodgate

Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge taken near Themis flood gate

For any photo geeks, the picture was taken with a Nikon D-40 DSLR using an ISO of 200 and an exposure of 5 seconds at f/6.3.

There was a barge working its way upstream (note the light streaks) and I was hoping he would shine his spotlight my way to make an interesting light streak. He was, however, more intent on finding channel markers along the east bank than improving my picture. Click on the image to bring up a larger version.

Views from old Traffic Bridge overlook

Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge taken from old bridge overlook

These two pictures were shot at about the same time. The only real difference is that I zoomed out to get both spans in the second picture.

I was hoping to pick up some light streaks from vehicles on the bridge, but traffic was light and there was a cold drizzle tricking down my neck. My working philosophy dictated that I wasn’t required to go hungry, get wet or lift heavy objects.

Why would I want to work any harder to produce a blog?

Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge taken from old Traffic Bridge overlook

Couple watching river flow by

Couple watching Mississippi River flow by Cape Girardeau

I was too lazy to set up the tripod for this picture, so I hand-held it at at about one second. That’s why the guy is a little blurry from movement.

Editor’s note

This is far from the final look of this site. The WordPress template that Son Matt picked is different than the one used by my other blog, PalmBeachBikeTours.com, and there’s a pretty steep learning curve associated with dealing with a graphics-heavy one like this.

I’m going to be in Cape a few more days shooting new pictures to go along with old ones I’m sure are in the file. After that, I suspect it’ll take me at least a couple of months to get everything organized, scrutinized and digitized. (The only “ized” I haven’t figured out is the monetized one. Maybe I should draft some of the old Girardot and Tiger business staffers to go out and sell ads for me.)

My old earth science teacher, Ernie Chiles, and I are going for a bicycle ride Wednesday. Thursday I’m going over to the old Central High School to see what it looks like after being converted to a junior high school.

Copyright © Ken Steinhoff. All rights reserved.