When looking at the picture above, one may see this as a simple single span Pennsylvania Petit through truss bridge spanning a large stream that was built at the turn of the century. However, if you look at the next three pics, you will find that there is more to this bridge than its appearance. Have a look below:
This bridge consists of a total of eight spans: four trestle spans on the east side, the Pennsylvania Petit truss design that is 200 feet (61 meters) long, and three Pratt through truss bridges with two center spans that are taller and 20-30 feet longer than the western most span. The total length of the bridge is 703 feet (214.3 meters), making it one of the longest combination spans to not only cross the Des Moines River but also one of the longest bridges of its kind in the state of Iowa. The history of the bridge is unique as it was built by one of the main local bridge companies in Iowa, the Iowa Bridge Company of Des Moines, Iowa. The company was founded in 1902 by James Carpenter and together with its rival company the Clinton Bridge and Iron Works Company, they became the primary bridge builders in Iowa and the surrounding area for the first three decades of the 20th century. While it is unknown how long this company was in existence, the Iowa Bridge Company was responsible for the construction of this bridge in 1910, although according to local records, the company constructed another larger bridge down stream to serve the Lincoln Highway (US Hwy. 30, now a county road). While that bridge was replaced twice and now a concrete bridge serves that road, the Wagon Wheel Bridge still provides travellers going down 200th Street with a scenic backroad route exiting Boone from the northwest and snaking its way down the Des Moines River Valley. When crossing the bridge, one can see the Kate Shelley Viaduct on the left hand side (both the 2009 modern concrete and the 1912 steel viaducts) and a lot of greenery and hills on the right hand side.
Sadly however, this bridge has been the focus of an intense debate on its future, as it has been closed to traffic since 2007 and has sustained structural damage to the east approach as a result of the Great Flood of 2008. While the bridge has been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, its future is being threatened through a referendum that states that Boone County residents would pay $22 per $55,000 worth of owned property to replace the bridge completely with a new structure built 60 feet away. This has been met by stiff opposition by some members of the Boone County board of commission and many residents who cannot afford to have their property taxes raised for this bridge project. Furthermore, should the majority vote for the project on 2 November, it cannot be started until a series of surveys are carried out to determine the environmental impact of the bridge project. It also has to go through the Section 106 of the Historic Preservation Act, which was put into law in 1966, to determine the adverse effects of altering or demolishing a bridge protected through its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. These surveys could take 3-5 years to complete and cannot be circumvented.
Contrary to the belief that the bridge would fall into the river as the county board of commissioners have claimed, upon visiting the bridge this past summer, from what I could see with the structure, the truss superstructure appeared to be in decent shape with the exception of some minor repairs done to it. The only recommendations that would have to be made would be to reconstruct the trestle approaches, as two of the spans have been misaligned as the result of the flooding. Furthermore new flooring may be needed in order for it to be a functioning unit again- be it for vehicles or for recreation, the latter of which is being pursued by many people.
Looking at the Wagon Wheel Bridge from a strategic and economical standpoint, going ahead with the referendum to demolish the bridge for a new structure that may serve up to 20 vehicles a day- given the current circumstances with the economy- is not in the best interest for the people of Boone County. Many residents are struggling to keep afloat due to high debts and unemployment, something that will continue to linger for many months and possibly years to come. Furthermore, the nearest crossing is only 3 miles to the south on the former Lincoln Highway, where travelers have been used to taking this route since the bridge’s closure in 2007. In addition, as one resident pointed out, the Wagon Wheel Bridge would make a better fit for recreation purposes, given its approximate location to the Kate Shelley Viaducts and due to the fact that there are not enough bike trails in and around the Boone area. Having a bike trail cross this truss bridge complex would provide tourists with access to not only the beautiful green Des Moines River valley but also to the past as they would learn about how this bridge was constructed and how it played a role in shaping the American infrastructure during that particular time.
To conclude this article, I would like to present you with this photo of the Wagon Wheel Bridge, up close and personal and have you ask yourself, is it really worth the price to replace this bridge, which would represent a bigger tourist attraction if rehabilitated to serve its purpose for recreation, for a bridge that will only accomodate up to only 20 cars a day, at the expense of the tax payers and another piece of American History, just because of the fear that the bridge might fall into the river, something that is more a theoretical than practical?
More photos of the Wagon Wheel Bridge can be seen in the bridgehunter.com website. Click here for more detailed shots taken by the author (mostly) and three others who have visited the bridge since 2009.