With one big boom, a piece of river history started tumbling down

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Oct. 19, 2019 12:20 am Updated: Oct. 19, 2019 12:33 am

LOUISIANA, Mo. -- A piece of local history that's been towering over the Mississippi River for 91 years started falling by the wayside Friday afternoon -- literally.

The old Champ Clark Bridge, built in 1928, became obsolete once a newer, wider and safer Champ Clark Bridge was put into service in early August.

After the new bridge began carrying U.S. 54 traffic between Missouri and Illinois, the old bridge was shut down, and the dismantling slowly began.

On Friday, the demolition took a giant leap forward when two of the bridge's five steel trusses were dramatically dropped into the Mississippi River through the use of explosives, which sent a loud boom echoing through the river valley.

The fiery demise of nearly half the bridge took place at 4:25 p.m. while crowds of people lined the hillsides along the Missouri shore, watching eagerly with cameras and cellphones in hand.

"It was pretty cool. We didn't expect it to be so loud," said Meghan Schuckenbrock of Louisiana, who watched the explosion from the parking lot of the River's Edge hotel along with her mother, Karen Schuckenbrock, and about 125 other people.

Karen Schuckenbrock had been patiently waiting for the bridge explosion since 11:30 a.m. Friday. Her daughter got there about 2:30 p.m. The two trusses were originally scheduled to come down sometime between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., but it took longer than expected for the demolition crew to finish connecting the explosive charges, so onlookers had to wile away several hours until the work got done.

"It was well worth the wait," Karen Schuckenbrock said. "It was very impressive. But it's sad, though. I didn't think this was going to bother me, but it bothers me. That bridge was always here, and now it's coming down."

Despite the sentimentality over seeing a piece of local history disappear, she admits that the new Champ Clark Bridge "is a lot safer" than the old one.

Her daughter agreed. "The old bridge was scary," she said.

James T. Smith of Pittsfield, Ill., also came out to watch the bridge explosion. He grew up in Pleasant Hill, Ill., and his family visited Louisiana often over the years.

"I've been crossing the Champ Clark Bridge since I was a little kid, so it's kind of special to me," he said.

Smith, who a is photographer and videographer, stationed himself at Riverview Park overlooking the river so he'd be in a good position to capture plenty of photo and video images.

"Being a photographer, you can't miss a good explosion," he said.

John Middleton of Springfield, Mo., and his sister, Alice Holzhouser of Millstadt, Ill., watched the explosion from the deck of a home owned by their mother's cousin high atop the river bluff.

"We've been living with this bridge all our lives," Middleton said. "This is a bittersweet moment, but this (the demolition) needed to be done. That old bridge was dangerous."

His sister agreed.

"That bridge has always been a part of our lives. So I'm kind of sad to see it go, but I realize this is progress."

Joining Middleton and Holzhouser for Friday's demolition-viewing session was Mick Laflin, pastor of the United Methodist Church in Pittsfield.

"I wanted to take this opportunity because this is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime event," Laflin said.

Massman Construction -- the general contractor that built the new $60 million bridge -- is also in charge of taking down the old bridge. But the person who actually pushed the button to set off the explosive charges at Friday's event was a 13-year-old boy from Nebo, Ill.

Mitchel Lemons, a seventh-grader at Pikeland Community School, won a raffle that earned him the right to push the button to detonate the first two truss sections. A fellow Pike County, Ill., resident -- John Borrowman of Pittsfield -- won a separate raffle that will give him the opportunity in a couple of weeks to set off the charges for two other truss spans on the Illinois side of the river.

Lemons said he was excited to get a chance to have a hand in demolishing a bridge.

"It's amazing," he said.

Once the explosion took place, the two spans dropped straight down into the river with a mighty splash and a cloud of black smoke.

Debris from one of the spans blocked the Mississippi's main navigation channel. Under an agreement with the Coast Guard, Massman's crews were given 24 hours to remove all the debris from the navigation channel so towboats and other watercraft could start moving once again on the river.

Danny Bishop, safety manager for Massman, said crews will use big cranes to lift sections of the fallen bridge out of the river and place them on barges. The sections will then be taken to Massman's dock at the south end of Louisiana to be cut into smaller pieces and hauled away for recycling.

Bishop said Massman's team was making a concerted effort Friday to keep all onlookers at least 1,200 feet away from the blast site to guard against any flying debris.

"We want everybody, including bystanders, to go home safely at the end of the day," he said.

Because the preparations took longer than expected, not everyone who arrived for Friday's demolition event were able to stay until the explosion took place. For example, Carol and Bill Haden of Hannibal drove down to Louisiana around 10:30 a.m. Friday but had to go home before the fireworks began.

"We just wanted to see it happen," Mrs. Haden said. "We're in our 80s. ?We've seen about everything, so we thought we'd best see this."


Editor's Note: A 22-second video of Friday's explosive demolition can be viewed online at: