Halstead bridge made famous in film is getting refurbished

Halstead’s swinging bridge in Riverside Park gained fame in the 1955 movie “Picnic,” starring William Holden, Rosalind Russell and Kim Novak.
Halstead’s swinging bridge in Riverside Park gained fame in the 1955 movie “Picnic,” starring William Holden, Rosalind Russell and Kim Novak. Courtesy City of Halstead

The city of Halstead is spending $85,000 to refurbish one of its main tourist attractions: the swinging foot bridge in the town’s Riverside Park.

The 1955 movie “Picnic” was filmed there, making it one of the most famous bridges in Kansas.

It was from there that actress Kim Novak floated down the river in a swan-shaped paddle-boat, where Hollywood stars danced and where drama played out on Kansas soil. When William Holden, Rosalind Russell, Novak and Cliff Robertson arrived in Halstead, it marked the first time a major motion picture was made in Kansas.

The bridge “has a lot of history behind it,” said Sam Farmer, a Halstead City Council member who proposed to his wife, Brenda, on that same bridge 42 years ago.

The swinging bridge was built in 1938 by Orris L. Hinshaw. It’s 180 feet long, and, according to Farmer, the wood planks will be replaced with boards made of composite materials. Docks and a set of stairs were added in Riverside Park for use in the movie.

“That bridge is an intricate part of our city. The majority of the public doesn’t want to see that bridge go,” Farmer said. “We are reconstructing it as near to original as possible.”

The handrails will be painted Halstead Dragon Blue, decking will be cedar finished, and side rails along the steel structure will be gray.

The goal is to have the work done by mid-August, in time for Old Settlers Day, the town’s annual festival.

The Harvey County Old Settlers Picnic has been held at Riverside Park every year since 1896.

The bridge, said town historian Carolyn Williams, is what helps make Halstead well known.

“How many towns do you know that has a suspension bridge?” she said.

When it was built, the city wanted it to look similar to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

It doesn’t. Not even close.

“Well, it is up over the water,” Williams said.

But the movie has a cult-like following, she said, and many of Halstead’s tourists come specifically to see the bridge.

“When Columbia Pictures filmed it, they were looking for a place in Kansas. The town had to have a river running through it, a dam and a bridge. They publicly requested people to write in. A local citizen wrote in about Halstead,” Williams said.

While the movie was being filmed in Kansas, Udall was struck by a tornado, killing more than 75 people, injuring more than three-fourths of the town and destroying 192 buildings.

After the Udall tornado, the Hollywood film crew turned to Cecil Carrier, a local weather TV forecaster, to help soothe the nerves of Novak.

She wanted to have a personal briefing each day, because she was frightened of tornadoes.

Scenes from the movie were also filmed in Salina, Hutchinson and Nickerson.

“Picnic” was written by William Inge, a Kansas small-town boy who became one of the nation’s leading playwrights from the 1950s through the early 1970s. His plays, some made into popular movies such as “Bus Stop,” “Picnic” and “Splendor in the Grass,” depicted what he knew best: life in rural Kansas.

Inge was born on May 3, 1913, in Independence. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1935 and then worked in a string of jobs: as a highway laborer, a Wichita radio announcer and a drama critic for the St. Louis Star-Times.

His job at the newspaper put him in contact with Tennessee Williams, author of “The Glass Menagerie,” who encouraged Inge to write.

Inge often said of Kansas: “People who grow up in small towns get to know each other so much more closely than they do in cities. ... Big people come out of small towns.”

He won a Pulitzer Prize for “Picnic” in 1953.

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner