An old railroad bridge over the Kansas River could become a signature tourism draw

Web Aug21 Bonjour Rockhill 2
Photography by Natalea Bonjour

Michael Zeller’s appreciation for Kansas City’s old bridges runs deep.

“I went to North Kansas City High School just across the river,” Zeller says. “As high school and college students in the early eighties, we would hang out on ASB Bridge on Saturday nights with a case of Old Style beer and swing our legs and step onto freight trains.”

A few years ago, he was boating down the Kansas River when the Rock Island Railroad Bridge came into view.

“It was just abandoned,” he says. “I said, ‘Man, somebody ought to do something with that. Maybe put a restaurant out there and call it Chicken on a Bridge.’ And it was just a joke, right? I then spent the next four or five years trying to persuade somebody, anybody, to do something fun on that bridge because I wanted to live in a town where I could drink a beer and eat chicken and listen to a concert on a bridge.”

The abandoned railroad bridge lies just over the Kansas state line—Missouri begins in the parking lot—and was built in 1905 to carry trains loaded with cattle across the river in the Stockyards District.

After years of coordinating inspections, feasibility studies and grants, Zeller started an LLC called Flying Truss and in May, KCK voted unanimously to invest in and grant a lease for Zeller’s proposal. The bridge project will break ground this winter for a St. Patrick’s Day 2023 opening.

One motivation behind the project, Zeller says, is getting people to interact with Kansas City’s rivers more.

“A big challenge has been bringing people to the river and helping them overcome local hand-me-down bias and fear and demonization of our own rivers,” he says. “We recognized that the bridge was sort of like found land. It was steel land that didn’t have an address but that was above a river in the middle of a major metropolitan area.”

Zeller worked with the same feasability consultants who helped plan New York City’s famed High Line, which is now one of the city’s most popular land-marks in a city with no shortage.

Here’s what you need to know about the bridge.

It’s Kansas.

Although the bridge was acquired by KCMO in the 1980s, only to sit vacant, it’s technically in Kansas. The state line falls fifty feet from the bridge along the gravel space that separates it from American Royal Drive.

Because it’s in KCK, it’s getting more attention from officials there than it might on the other side of the state line. After Zeller signed a lease, the Unified Government of KCK, which is working to add more public exercise infrastructure, approached him.

“[Wyandotte has] one-twenty-seventh of the linear trails per person than Johnson County next door,” Zeller says. “So they came to us and said, ‘Hey, can we make a public-private part-nership to make the bridge also have a public crossing?’”At first, Zeller was resistant (“we imagined ten-speed bicycles zipping across it”), but the details were ironed out, meaning KCK will now have a connection to the metro trails network.

It’s already leased out.

The bridge’s lower deck, which is two hundred and fifty-five feet long, will have a food hall with two commercial kitchens to be used by Slap’s BBQ and Buffalo State Pizza. Nick Carroll, owner of Replay Lounge in Lawrence, will own and operate the bars and manage the liquor license. The lower deck will also have an event space. The top deck will house another event space with a dance floor, bar and coffee shop plus an overlook facing the river.

It’s very sturdy.

The bridge has been through a thorough engineering inspec-tion. “They had told us what we had suspected: that it’s a battleship,” Zeller says. “It’s built to carry locomotives and fully loaded freight trains on the move. And, critically, it was never salted like an automobile bridge would have been. Salt is the enemy of steel.”

Right now, the bridge is twenty feet wide. It will be widened with steel beams to become forty-five feet wide.

There will be plenty to do.

The Stockyards District has what Zeller calls “adjacent momentum” with the new outdoor music stage Lemonade Park and a new apartment complex going up next to the bridge. “Things are coming our way. And we want to be a good neighbor and a catalyst,” he says. “Think Quixotic up in the rafters on a Saturday night or the KC Symphony playing from a riverboat anchored at the center of the Kaw. We’ll have art fairs and craft beer festivals.”

Bikes will be available to rent to pedal up and down the levee, along with kayaks and canoes available to use in the Kaw.

Watch the video below.

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