New drive launched to fund pier sign

By Ned Seaton

There appears to be an answer to the long-running question of what to do with one of the old K-177 bridge piers next to the Kansas River: A welcome sign.

A small group of Manhattan residents has gotten the necessary bureaucratic approvals and is announcing a fundraising campaign to put a “Welcome to Manhattan” sign atop the bridge pier east of the river. They say they need about $50,000 to pay for the work and materials to build the sign, which would be made to fit with the art-deco stone appearance of the existing structure. It would be very prominent and visible for traffic coming into town from K-177, which is the main entry point for visitors coming from I-70 from the east.

“There have been a number of discussions about (what to do with the old bridge piers),” said Phil Anderson, who is leading the effort to get the sign built. “But they couldn’t generate the kind of support they needed to bear fruit.

“This idea will,” Anderson said. “A lot of people have seen a picture of this and said, ‘This needs to happen.’”

If they’re successful, the campaign would at least partially resolve an issue that’s lingered nearly two decades.

The bridge piers are concrete structures built in 1936 to support a bridge across the Kansas River leading to and from downtown Manhattan. They were saved from the wrecking ball in 1996, when the Kansas Department of Transportation was widening K-177 to four lanes from two — and installing a new bridge. Blaine Thomas, owner of the Thomas Signs billboard company, led the charge for preservation, citing their art deco style and the craftsmanship of the workers. Among his initial ideas was the basic “Welcome to Manhattan” sign that now appears to have achieved consensus among elected officials and bureaucrats, 17 years later.

The whole concept has gone around several bends, with confusion about who owns what — turns out the east pier is in unincorporated Riley County, the west pier is in Manhattan, and both are actually in the Kansas Department of Transportation’s easement for the highway — as well as disagreements about what to put atop them. There were contests, proposals from artists, cost estimates, and plenty of debate. The most recent wiggle was a digital sign announcing events for non-profit community groups, but KDOT zipped that idea.

Finally, late last year, the city, county and KDOT all informally agreed to the concept of the static “Welcome to Manhattan” sign.

That brings us to Anderson and his group, which includes Bart Thomas, Blaine’s son. It also includes former Riley County Commissioner Jim Williams. They are all involved in raising the money, and Thomas — who now runs the sign company — is going to donate the labor to create the sign.

The concept re-emerged after Anderson, who is an instructor at K-State and a landlord, ran an unsuccessful campaign for the City Commission. He met with Thomas and said he was struck by the simple idea of the welcome sign. He has pushed the concept, meeting with city, county and KDOT officials.

City manager Ron Fehr confirmed that “KDOT has blessed it.”

The 10-foot-by-36-foot sign would be made of aluminum, painted to match the look of the concrete pier, which is about 50 feet tall. The lettering would be in an art-deco style. Thomas has agreed to maintain the sign after it’s built.

The Manhattan Community Foundation has set up a fund for the “East Bridge Pier” project, so donations are tax-deductible. Donations can be made online through the foundation’s website,

The group is announcing their fundraising effort with an ad in today’s Mercury, which can be found on page C8.

The west pier, meanwhile, is still hanging fire. Fehr said the city has proposed a project for state and federal funding to build a pedestrian-bicylce overpass to the top of the levee from a sidewalk near the intersection of Fort Riley Boulevard and the bridge off-ramp. The pier could serve as an observation deck over the river; bikers and walkers could get up there using some sort of ramp from the top of the levee.

Anderson said that if the project with the east pier was successful and if the west pier was still a problem, something similar could be done with that one. He said his group was setting a deadline of three years to raise the necessary money.

The old K-177 bridge replaced a wood structure that had been built in 1871, Anderson said. That structure washed out in the flood of 1935. The construction of the piers and bridge in 1936 displaced what was known as “trolley town” east of the river; Anderson said that was where poor people set up makeshift homes in discarded trolley cars from the old interurban trolley system.

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