Saving The Katy Bridge

Passion. It’s the greatest gift anyone could ever ask for. Without passion most goals cannot be accomplished.

These past couple of weeks I’ve had the opportunity to talk with a few people whose hearts are filled with passion. In doing so, I learned that sometimes in journalism it’s not the subject of the story that is so fascinating, but the people in it.

This week’s story was about a bridge near downtown Boonville. Covered in thick vine and tree branches, the Katy Bridge is an old rusting bridge standing over the Missouri River. It was built in 1932, replacing another bridge that once stood there. It is part of the MKT railroad.

The last train crossed the bridge in 1986, but engineers still estimate it has at least 75 years left of heavy train use in its life. At the time the bridge was built, it had the longest lift span in the world.

It is also the bridge that has been the subject of a battle between Union Pacific and Save the Katy Bridge Coalition for six years; a battle that finally ended on Feb. 4.

I first saw the story about the Katy Bridge in an AP article. Gov. Nixon announced Union Pacific would be selling the bridge to Boonville for a dollar.

Boonville had been fighting for the bridge in hopes of restoring it to attract tourists and to preserve the history of the bridge. They also wanted to connect it to the Katy Trail. Union Pacific wanted to use parts of the bridge to construct another bridge over the Osage River near Jefferson City. The state of Missouri decided they would give Union Pacific $23 million in stimulus money to help build the bridge over the Osage. In exchange, Union Pacific would sell the Katy Bridge to Boonville.

I decided it sounded neat and wanted to take a different angle to it. I wanted to know more about what would be happening to the bridge, not about the agreement between the state, Union Pacific, and Boonville.

I was able to find Paula Shannon, chairperson of the Save the Katy Bridge coalition, in the white pages. She was happy to meet with me and talk about what actions the coalition would be taking in restoring the bridge. I had also been trying to get in contact with the man working on the plans at Columbia’s engineering firm Allstate Consultants. I hadn’t yet been able to contact him when I went to interview Shannon. During her interview she mentioned the enormous amount of support the coalition had been receiving from a variety of people. I asked if she knew anyone who had worked on the bridge at the time it was still in service. She gave me a few people I could get in contact with. I decided to use the man working at Allstate Consultants as a backup interview and see if I could speak to any of the workers from the bridge to give the story a more personal angle.

If anyone could add a personal angle to the story, it is Jim Bradshaw. Bradshaw worked for three years as a bridge tender, starting in 1963. He is the third generation in his family to work with the railroad and since then he has hoped to preserve the bridge to keep its history alive.

“It’s about the legacy of the people who worked on that railroad, because it’s such a visible monument,” Bradshaw said. “I do hope to enhance the memories of some of the people that literally gave their lives there.”

The problem I came across with this story was deciding who to use for my central compelling character. Both Bradshaw and Shannon had powerful stories, but in the end Bradshaw provided great visuals for my story and also had a connection with the bridge that I felt I wouldn’t be able to find in anyone else.

During this story I worked hard to get to interesting angles of the bridge. I tried to provide action in the shots, by using the overgrown weeds blowing in the wind. I also learned more about using the exposure setting during a cloudy day and lighting an interview in a dark room.

In the end, it was amazing to watch the sparkle in Bradshaw and Shannon’s eyes as they talked about the bridge. It was clear through the emotion they showed in the interviews how much they cared.

After Shannon’s interview, I had the chance to walk through the cornfields, down the slushy path, and up the steep hill through brush, vine and broken poles to the north side of the bridge. I still remember my first step onto the tracks. Although I couldn’t walk far because of the snow, I could still feel every emotion Bradshaw and Shannon talked about welling up inside of me. I closed my eyes and imagined what it might have been like more than 20 years ago; trains passing, the bridge going up and down for barges. When I opened them, it felt great to finally get a glance first hand at how much happiness this bridge has brought others and now how much happiness and memories this bridge will bring for generations to come.


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