Saying good-bye to Amelia Earhart

Bridge engineer in charge of repair since 1972 will watch demolition of existing span with no regrets

Blog Entry May 21, 2012

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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Soon there will be an Amelia Earhart disappearing once again into the landscape. Although Atchison, Kan., is far less mysterious than a dark, engulfing space over the Pacific, it is still going to claim the life of a steel truss bridge that creeks its way through the days and nights. However, the loss is bringing new life carrying the Earhart name, and I was fortunate enough to catch the project in action during my travels through Kansas and Missouri last week.


While interviewing on the approach of the new Amelia Earhart Bridge, I happened to run into Richard Elliott, a senior field engineer for HNTB Corp. HNTB is designing the new span, and Elliott has been tackling the existing one since 1972.


"The existing bridge has been my career bridge," he said with a chuckle before I convinced him to go in front of the camera for an interview.


I was interested to hear how Elliott was dealing with the targeted demolition of "his girl." I have been on several jobsites in the past, and with every one engineers talk about how fortunate they feel in leaving a mark on the world. They literally gush about it, and are certainly deserving of the opportunity.


So I just came out with it and asked him how it was going to feel when the existing Earhart bridge was forced to the ground. "I do have some sentimental attachment to it, but I am confident we are doing the right thing [by building a new bridge]," Elliott said.


Elliott has been behind the repair work of the old Earhart since 1972, and has quite a few memories that tug at his engineer's heart. One involves the replacement of the bridge deck. Elliott and crew had to reduce the dead load of the structure and replaced it with a partially filled steel grid deck. Weathering steel was used, which soon gave in to rust and corrossion. Another memory was made when a runaway barge slammed into the pier on the Kansas bank, forcing a bridge closure. Elliott and his colleagues were on the scene 24/7 making sure the right repairs were made.


Elliott also was the one who wrote a memo to the chief of engineering at the Kansas DOT back in the early 1990s recommending a complete replacement. So I guess he has had almost 20 years to cope with the loss. Still, I think Elliott is going to feel something at the pit of his stomach when demolition day does come around. However, he is willing to sacrifice his glory days to make it right for the traveling public. Perhaps we should be naming a bridge after him.

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