The Merchant of Venice

The McKinley Bridge is broke — structurally and financially — and everyone wants it fixed. Trouble is, Mayor Tyrone Echols of Venice isn't about to give away the city's bridge. But he could be talked into trading it.

In the nine decades since its completion in 1910, the McKinley Bridge has had its share of unusual events. Hundreds of yellowed and frayed newspaper clips and other documents in St. Louis-area libraries tell the tales: an 18-year-old woman, depressed about her life, jumps off the bridge but survives; a high-diver wins a $20 bet by diving off the bridge at night, although he has to "dry off at the Venice police station"; a 31-year-old woman starts a fire in her backseat, then repeatedly — and unsuccessfully — tries to drive the car off the bridge; a couple crash their car on the bridge at night and get out, then slip through "a two-foot-wide space between a girder and railroad tracks," falling 60 feet to their deaths; a 10-year old boy tries to climb the bridge, then freezes, 50 feet up in the air, until police rescue him.

More recently, an unusual event has been the arrival of the two falcons.

For some years now, the same two falcons have come each March during the breeding season and built a sparse nest under the bridge, inside the steel beams, high above the Mississippi River. Tom Fields, who oversees the bridge for the city of Venice, Ill., says some of the men in the maintenance crew carry crowbars while working on the bridge, because the falcons are known to attack, swooping down, screeching loudly, talons brandished, feathers flapping. But the falcons are still welcome. "We prefer to have them, despite all that, because they kill the pigeons," he says. Ever since the falcons started coming a few years ago, he says, "the pigeons are all gone."

Neither the bridge's past nor the falcons under its deck are on the minds of commuters on this warm August afternoon. To most, it is simply worth paying the 50-cent toll for cars (up to $1.50 for trucks) on this old bridge rather than go to either of the two free bridges — the Poplar Street and the Martin Luther King — and get bogged in traffic jams. And the cars pull up at a fairly steady stream from Illinois Route 3 to one of the four tollgates at the east entrance to the bridge in Venice, their drivers tossing two quarters into the basket as they roll through, never really stopping. Most are regular McKinley commuters and have the ritual down: Hold quarters in hand, reduce speed, pick the gate to approach, roll down window, make the basket, hit the gas.

A short distance past the tollbooths and up the bridge incline, the terrain changes dramatically, getting rougher and bumpier, and, instinctively, the drivers slow down. Where the road curves, heading straight west over the waters of the Mississippi and toward the first of three gigantic steel trusses, there is another choice to make: inside or outside. The left lane is the safer option, newly refurbished and a relatively smooth ride, taking you right inside the trusses. The right lane is for those with adventurous leanings, a noisy, scary, rumbling ride on the pavement that runs outside the hulking truss structure, but one that provides a scenic view of the Missouri shoreline, the muddy water, the tethered casino and the occasional barge. In both lanes, once past the trusses, the road gets really bad, all broken and bumpy with no visible lanes, forcing drivers to slow down to 10 or 15 mph or risk an axle, until the bridge reaches Broadway in St. Louis, a block from the entrance ramps to Interstate 70 and in eyeshot of downtown.

Fields has the unenviable task of holding the bridge up, both structurally and financially. For 23 years he has managed the bridge, which now faces a serious crisis. The short-term crisis is that the city of St. Louis last month demanded the payment of about $800,000 in delinquent property taxes dating back to 1994 — a demand that included St. Louis' threat to sell the Missouri half of the bridge to the highest bidder.

No one took the threat very seriously, but it worked anyway: After a meeting between St. Louis and Venice officials, Venice handed over a check for $57,951 to St. Louis, buying itself 90 days to come up with a financial plan.

The longer-term crisis is that the bridge will shut down in the next two to five years if no major rehab is done. And that prospect is front-and-center these days in the mind of Venice Mayor Tyrone Echols. In talking about the bridge, Echols alternately refers to it both as an asset and an albatross.

Either way, the reality is, the bridge needs a lot of help — fast.

"We have a situation where the bridge is trying to fall apart on its own," says Fields, leaning over the guardrail and scanning the sides. It's worth keeping and, with a proper rehab, could provide service for another 30 years, he says. "It's a plain and common structure and strong as an ox. It's an old dowager of a bridge," he says. After a pause, he adds, "It's still a nice bridge."

The metal-and-concrete camelback bridge designed by Ralph Modjeski has the truss superstructure atop four limestone piers that reach down to bedrock. A fairly standard design at the time, the bridge was built at a cost of about $4 million by the Illinois Terminal Railroad to carry freight cars and "interurban electric trains" right into downtown St. Louis. At the time of the bridge's opening, the city of Venice and the surrounding communities were booming with trade and industry — plate-glass companies, steel mills, meatpacking plants, lead works, railyards. The opening of the direct "McKinley lines" into St. Louis was greeted with much pomp. About 100,000 people attended the bridge's opening ceremonies on a cold November day. "There were many bonfires along the shore on either side of the river as the air was raw and cold," according to one newspaper account.

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