An Abandoned Railroad Bridge is Being Turned Into a Kansas City Attraction

Kansas City will be getting a new attraction in the Summer of 2024, as a new entertainment district, restaurant and trailhead is being built over the Kansas River. The most interesting part of this plan, to me at least, is the fact that they are building it on an abandoned railroad bridge, much like Trestle Park in Milwaukee, but with much larger ambitions!

Rendering of the central truss. Image courtesy of Rock Island Bridge.

If you are looking for a unique and exciting place to visit in Kansas City this summer, you might want to check out the Rock Island Railroad Bridge, a historic structure that is being transformed into an entertainment district and venue over the Kansas River. (Location on our Railroad Points of Interest Map)

In fact, The Wall Street Journal and New York Times just listed the KC area as a top place to visit in 2024, and Rock Island Bridge was listed as a key reason. 

Rock Island Bridge schematic. Image courtesy of Rock Island Bridge.

Groundbreaking on the project began in May of 2023, and despite some of the challenges with this being one of the first projects that is converting an old bridge into a new entertainment district, is still on track to open in the Summer. Today's blog goes over some of the history and future of the Rock Island Bridge over the Kansas River.

Worker on cantilever facing east. Image courtesy of Rock Island Bridge.

Cantilever Deck Installation. Image courtesy of Rock Island Bridge.

Construction of the lower and upper decks. Image courtesy of Rock Island Bridge.

The Rock Island Railroad Bridge was built in 1905 by the American Bridge Company to carry freight and livestock across the river to the West Bottoms, a major beef processing center at the time. This replaced an earlier bridge which was destroyed in a 1901 flood.

Another flood, this one in 1951, would cause the bridge to be raised to prevent further catastrophe, as during that flood at three locomotives perished when the waters reached the bottom of the bridge.

A distant view of the West Bottoms from the northwest after the 1951 flood. Montgomery/Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri (Via KCUR)

The bridge was finally abandoned in 1980, when the City of Kansas City, Missouri purchased it for parking expansion. It remained unused for decades, until the City of Kansas City, Kansas took ownership of it in 2022, with the vision of connecting its emerging network of levee trails and activating the new Kansas Waterfront.

The project, led by Flying Truss LLC, a public/private partnership, aims to create America’s first entertainment district over a river, with dining, bars, event spaces, music, and more perched 40 feet over the water. 

Rendering of the event space on the bridge. Image courtesy of Rock Island Bridge.

The bridge will also serve as a public crossing and a community center, tying into recreational developments that are underway from Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, such as the waterfront district and new trail systems.

The construction of the Rock Island Bridge is expected to be completed in the Summer of 2024, while the waterfront and trail development is a more long-term project. One project involves levee improvements along the river, which are slated for completion in 2026.

Rendering of the bar space on the bridge. Image courtesy of Rock Island Bridge.

This bridge project is a testament to the history and culture of Kansas City, and a symbol of its innovation and creativity, as well as the history of the West Bottoms area, and follows the urban trend of converting industrial uses (in this case, stockyards), into entertainment venues. 

Rock Island Bridge rendering from the riverbank. Image courtesy of Rock Island Bridge.

It promises to be a place where people can enjoy the scenic views of the river, the historic architecture of the bridge, and the vibrant atmosphere of the entertainment district. There's nothing I love more than development which takes historical architecture and converts it into something new and exciting, and so I hope this project is a success.

Concrete flooring during construction. Image courtesy of Rock Island Bridge.

If you are interested in learning more about the Rock Island Railroad Bridge, you can visit their website here. You can also follow them on social media for updates and events. And if you want to see the bridge for yourself, you can reserve your tickets for bridge tours here. Start booking your hotels now!

I spoke to the developers of this project, Michael Zeller and Michael Laddin for a bit more context on this project, and how this project came into existence. 

According to Mike Laddin (CFO and VP of Flying Truss, LLC), Mike Zeller (the founder and CEO of Flying Truss, LLC.) "found the bridge on a boat trip up the river with his sons. He jokingly stated that somebody ought to put a restaurant up there and call it "Chicken ona Bridge."  He tried to get others interested in doing it - and couldn't.  So - he decided to do it himself.  Which in turn - brought me into the project as I have known Michael for 15+ years (our kids went to the same preschool together).  Who wouldn't want to be part of a first in the world project with such great community benefits?" 

It turned out to be more than "Chicken ona Bridge."...

I then asked if and how there been instances where community feedback (positive or otherwise) influenced specific aspects of the project. "This project has been filled with community feedback. We've assembled a "coalition" of groups, businesses, foundations, and individuals who are subject matter experts or simply community members interested in the project.  We try our ideas before those groups and take notes on their ideas."

Construction of the roof on the cantilever. Image courtesy of Rock Island Bridge.

My last question was one I hoped would be answer affirmatively, and the Mikes did not disappoint; Are there any plans (or hopes) for any other pieces of abandoned bridges/infrastructure to be reutilized in this way?

"YES! This is a model for using infrastructure in a very unique way.  There are many unused RR bridges in the heart of metropolitan areas all over the US. [This is very true!] We hope to take our funding model and our construction partners to other bridges across the US."

While I will not be in Kansas City anytime soon, I hope if and when I do make it out there I am able to update this blog with my own photos and thoughts! Many thanks to Michael Laddin, Michael Zeller and Heather Silliman for providing much of the photos and renderings in this blog, as well as their quotes and help. Best of luck to them on this project, and thanks as always for reading!


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