Locked in Love
Kansas City's old red bridge commemorates lovers with personalized padlocks.
A tragic century-old Serbian tale of World War I tells the story of Nada, a schoolmistress who fell in love with a Serbian officer named Relja. Relja goes off to war in Greece and falls in love with a woman from Corfu Island, resulting in his breaking off the engagement with the schoolmistress. Nada never recovers and ends up dying of a broken heart. According to the tale, the young women from her town, in order to avoid the same fate and protect their own loves, began “locking their loves.” They would write their names and the names of their loved ones on padlocks and latch them onto the railings of the bridge where Nada and Relja had rendezvoused in the past. The tale and tradition of “love-locking” as a symbol of unbreakable and long-lasting love has become etched into the European region’s history, but the tradition of lovers symbolically locking their loves is far from ending its run. It’s even made its way to Kansas City.
Kansas City’s Love Locks History
Since the early 2000s, personalized love padlocks began appearing all over Europe, on bridges, fences, gates and other public structures, and since then, the practice has been spreading around the globe. Part of the tradition involves having a customized lock engraved with the couples’ names, and any other personal message they’d like to include. Many municipalities in different parts of the world treat the locks as litter and even equate the practice with vandalism, but many others, including Kansas City, welcome the idea.
In Great Britain stands a giant lock-covered bonsai tree, commissioned by Canadian photographer/artist Nathalie Daoust and Jonathan Montagu to commemorate their meeting in Japan. In Rome, the bridge known as the Ponte Milvio began garnering its own love locks, inspired by the 2006 novel-turned-film I Want You by Italian author Federico Moccia. In 2014, the weight of all the love locks attached to the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris was even responsible for part of the pedestrian bridge’s collapse.
A bridge known as the Love Locks Bridge has become the spot where Kansas City’s lovers symbolically lock their loves. The bridge is actually the third incarnation of the original red bridge built in 1859 by Colonel George N. Todd, a Scottish stonemason, spanning about 100 feet across the Blue River in scenic Minor Park, located on Red Bridge Road between Holmes Road and Blue River Road.
The first bridge, built of wood on stone piers, was torn down in 1892 to make way for a sturdier steel bridge, also painted red. Later, in 1933, the next red replacement bridge was dedicated by Harry S. Truman, built of steel, concrete and red granite, and sturdy enough to sustain vehicular traffic.
Partly motivated by a desire to keep Kansas City’s love-locking as contained in one place as possible, the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department decided to repurpose the third bridge rather than tear it down in 2012, when a new traffic bridge was constructed nearby. This third bridge is the one that has since become home to so many of Kansas City’s love locks.
Since then, at least 2,500 commemorative locks have found their way onto the Old Red Bridge, mostly attached to the wrought iron fencing that runs the length of the bridge on either side.
“People lock their love all year round,” says Heidi Downer, marketing and special events manager for the Kansas City Parks & Recreation Department. “There are mostly couples’ love locks, but people also affix locks to commemorate anniversaries, weddings, memorials to loved ones and belated pets, and for graduations. It’s always interesting to see what people commemorate and celebrate.”
The site has also become a popular location for weddings. Downer says the first couple to get engaged at the bridge ended up becoming the first couple to get married there. But the most popular time of year for love-locking is Valentine’s Day, according to Downer.
Where Will You Lock Your Love?
Since Valentine’s Day 2013, the Parks & Recreation Department has installed temporary floodlights to illuminate the bridge at night on a weekend close to Valentine’s Day so that lovers have plenty of light while they affix their commemorative locks. Valentine’s Day falls on a Tuesday this year, and Downer anticipates making the floodlights available the weekend following (Feb. 17-19). The floodlights — which Downer refers to as ambient “mood” lighting — typically illuminate the bridge on the designated evenings from about sundown until 10 p.m.
“This will give people the opportunity to gift their locks on Valentine’s Day, with the promise of a follow-up date together the weekend immediately after,” she says.
When asked whether or not there is a fear of running out of room for love locks on the bridge, or whether the bridge might ever collapse under the weight of too many locks, Downer takes issue with any concerns.
“We won’t run out of room for locks, not in our lifetime,” she says. “And there should be no concern about the bridge collapsing — it is sturdy enough to support vehicles, and most of the locks end up on the fencing rather than on the bridge structure itself.”
One litter-related concern that municipalities have run into surrounding the love-locking tradition is what has become the traditional “tossing of the key” once couples’ locks are affixed. In Minor Park, this has typically meant keys being tossed into the waters of the Blue River. Downer discourages this practice and encourages visitors to “leave the fish in peace,” suggesting rather that couples instead save the keys for scrapbooks or even as jewelry.
The park doesn’t close at night, and though it is known to be safe after dark, Downer recommends that visitors remain aware of their surroundings. She recommends that couples spend some time together at the park in the daylight hours, with enough time to stroll around the pedestrian walkways, read the historic plaques to learn a bit about the city’s history, and enjoy the scenery before it gets dark and it becomes time to lock their love together on the bridge.
“It’s a beautiful historic bridge, part of south Kansas City’s history,” Downer says. “In a way, couples get to immortalize their commitment to one another, symbolically becoming part of the city’s history, and looking forward to the future at the same time.”
Locks can also be purchased at the Minor Park Golf Course Pro Shop. For more information, visit kcparks.org.