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Kansas City's Independence Avenue Bridge, a 'truck-eating' legend, is immortalized in painting

Artist and illustrator Thomas Gieseke at his easel working on his latest painting "Monsters-Merry-Go-Round" in his home studio in Merriam, Kansas.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Artist and illustrator Thomas Gieseke works on a new painting in his home studio in Merriam, Kansas.

A new warning system may have forced a diet on Northeast Kansas City's most infamous bridge, but it hasn't stopped Thomas Gieseke's imagination from transforming the structure into a thing of whimsy and terror.

Even before Merriam artist and illustrator Thomas Gieseke brought the Independence Avenue Bridge to life last year, the overpass was a local folk hero to many around Kansas City.

The bridge has a fan page on Facebook with more than 20,000 followers and multiple accounts on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. The bridge was emblazoned on T-shirts, and one person even got a tattoo on his arm of the structure's caution sign.

Then, Gieseke immortalized it on canvas.

Artist Thomas Gieseke imagined the Independence Avenue Bridge as a hungry monster gobbling up trucks.
Thomas Gieseke
Artist Thomas Gieseke reimagined last fall the Independence Avenue Bridge as a hungry monster gobbling up unlucky trucks.

"They have a funny sense of humor in the Northeast," Gieseke said. "This bridge is their version of 'America’s Funniest Home Videos.'"

The old railroad bridge is notorious for foiling unsuspecting drivers who attempt to navigate their too-tall semitrucks under its 12-foot span. When trucks get stuck, the internet erupts with glee.

"Imprudent truck drivers try to defy the laws of physics and jam their over-sized trucks through this under-sized bridge," Gieseke said. "The bridge is a concrete beast, though. It will always win."

A truck-eating monster

Gieseke is known for his paintings of surreal landscapes full of fantastic creatures and frolicking monsters.

"My art is whimsical with the proper amount of terror mixed in," Gieseke said.

"For a Brief Moment in Time, Singularity Appears at the Infinity Diner, But goes Completely Unnoticed" by artist and illustrator Thomas Gieseke.
Thomas Gieseke
According to a post on Instagram, artist and illustrator Thomas Gieseke renamed "For a Brief Moment in Time, Singularity Appears at the Infinity Diner, But Goes Completely Unnoticed," shown here, because of the burden of writing such a long title. The composition's new name is "Cynthia."

After he posted on Facebook his anthropomorphized version of the bridge as a truck-eating monster, he knew he had a hit on his hands. The post was shared more than 3,000 times and the painting became so popular that he's been selling prints and T-shirts ever since.

"I had absolutely no idea that it would take off like this, and I don't have any vain delusions that it's about me or my art," Gieseke admitted. "It's about the bridge, people have a love-hate relationship with this bridge."

Gieseke had been kicking around his vision of the truck-hungry traverse for years.

"I remember one time seeing a truck that had clunked its head trying to go underneath the bridge," he said. "And I may have seen a report in the news about where another truck got stuck. So I just started sketching this thing out and this was just a whim."

A Republic Services trash truck missed the sign in December last year and got stuck under the bridge.
Kansas City Fire Station No. 23
In December 2023, the driver of a Republic Services trash truck failed to heed height-warning signs and got stuck under the bridge.

Independence Avenue Bridge has caused truck drivers problems for decades. But it may have feasted on its final truck.

Workers installed in February a new warning curtain system on both sides of the legendary link to let inattentive drivers know their vehicle may be too tall to pass under.

"There's this sort of sick schadenfreude that they have over there in the Northeast," Gieseke said. "I can't imagine the embarrassment that a driver faces when they hit the thing — sparks and concrete chips are flying, and then they're stuck."

The bridge, built in 1912, is owned by the Kansas City Terminal Railway and allows hundreds of trains to cross over Independence Avenue without blocking traffic. Because of the cost, raising the bridge isn't really an option, city officials have told the media.

Instead, the new curtain, made out of 26 high-density plastic rods hanging from a horizontal metal beam, will chime when a truck hits them.

Kansas City installed a ew early warning system in front of a bridge owned by The Kansas City Terminal Railway near Wilson Avenue and Topping Avenue. The infamous bridge has received both local and national attention due to all of the semi-trucks that have struck it.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City installed in February a new early-warning system in front of the Independence Avenue Bridge, near Wilson and Topping avenues. The infamous bridge has received national attention for the number of semitrucks that have struck it.

Gieseke was dubious. He wondered if the new alert system will be loud enough to warn distracted truck drivers.

"Does this make enough racket to alert the driver?" Gieseke asked. "If he's got Dave Dudley playing 'Six Days on the Road' on his stereo, he might not hear it when he's crashing into that curtain there."

Yet it took less than a week for the curtain to curtail its first truck fatality.

Gieseke, nevertheless, said he'll keep on trucking.

"I'm going to die with a brush in my hand,” the painter said. “I can't do anything else. I won't do anything else.”

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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