Monday, August 24 | Submitted by JIM GIAMETTA Executive Editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph
Standing in the “Crow’s Nest” or ascending to the “Catbird Seat” has flocks of train enthusiasts singing like songbirds as they perch along the Jefferson Avenue Footbridge railing for a front-row observation seat to enjoy the ever-popular pastime of train watching.
The historic bridge, located between the White River Ridge and Osage River Basin, is considered by railroad fans as the Holy Grail when it comes to offering a platform where enthusiasts actually stand on the 562-foot-long cantilevered-steel span.
Visitors are so close to the long-haul trains, they can wave to the engineer. In most cases instead of a customary wave or nod, the response is a blaring train whistle salute as modern-day engineers recognize their fans along their route.
It’s this unique closeness that allows watchers to almost touch the engines and freight cars as they roll through Missouri’s third largest city, adding in the aromatic smell of burning diesel and an occasional flying cinder from the tracks below makes this attraction a sensory experience, with taste the only sense not affected.
On April 21, 1870, the first train of the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad, which later became the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway or “Frisco,” rolled into Springfield, establishing a new town. The division was called North Springfield. The bridge was constructed in 1902 to allow foot and bicycle traffic to cross above the 13 sets of tracks between Springfield and North Springfield. It was designated a national treasure by the U.S. Interior Department nearly a 100 years later.
Its downtown hub was at Commercial and Jefferson streets, and the giant switching yard led to the city’s rapid growth for many decades.
Springfield prospered as an important railway junction and was spurred on by the Golden Age of Train Travel as the rails connected this country east and west.
It’s at that old historic site Springfield railroad moguls, consumed by the phenomenal expansion the railroads brought to the city’s growth, found it necessary to construct a pedestrian bridge allowing bicycle and foot traffic safety over 13 sets of tracks.
The “Twin Cities of the Ozarks” continued to grow as many train lines, such as the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe, the Frisco, and others, used existing mainline rails and switches as they expanded. Springfield built the Jefferson Street Footbridge in 1902, awarding the contract to the American Bridge Co., the major trestle builder during that time.
Almost 100 years later, the bridge was refurbished at a $750,000 cost, and designated by the U.S. Interior Department as a national treasure.
During the centennial celebration, the span was added to the national registry of significant places worth preservation. It also was believed to be one the oldest functioning footbridges serving rail facilities in the United States, and has the honor of being the longest span still in use today. The restoration was the responsibility of the city of Springfield, Missouri Department of Transportation, the Commercial Club of Springfield, Downtown Springfield Association, Walnut Street Merchants Association and private contributions. There are no tolls or fees to utilize this magnificent structure.
Commercial Club board member Mary Collette, who has taken an avid interest in the upkeep and history of the bridge, described the footbridge as being, “the largest piece of interactive public art.” So, what started out as a mere platform for people to traverse safely, now beckons those with railroading in their blood to mount the span for spectacular photo opportunities, and to feel powerful, modern-day locomotives chug beneath their feet as the nation’s railroads move manufactured goods to America’s heart land.