The Chronicles’ Interview with Julie Bowers

McIntyre Bridge in Poweshiek County, Iowa before its destruction due to flooding in 2010. Photo taken by Julie Bowers, used with permission.


Imagine you have a vintage 1890s historic truss bridge that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places but is in danger of being demolished in favor of a new bridge. The local government knows that the functional life of the structure for automobiles has reached its end and a new bridge is needed to accomodate the increasing need of traffic on the road. Yet the bridge’s aesthetic value makes it worth being saved. The government does not have the funding resources available to renovate it, let alone relocate it to a park. Who do you turn to for help?

This is a one of those text book examples where unless the municipality has a group of people with enough resources, the historic bridge becomes a pile of scrap metal. While two thirds of the historic bridges in the United States have been wiped out over the past three decades, three out of four have been because of a lack of support and resources needed. This includes not only lacking financial resources but also the expertise needed to restore them to their pristine condition. Yet in the past decade we are starting to see a trend toward preserving as many of the remaining third of the historic bridges as possible. This includes the increase in welding and sandblasting the bridge parts and other techniques needed to restore the bridges. It also includes something that Julie Bowers of Workin’ Bridges is doing- marketing and selling historic bridges.

While many state departments of transportation have different policies towards marketing historic bridges that are on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) but are scheduled for replacement- and the success rate among them vary from state to state from above average to poor- Ms. Bowers has been spearheading the efforts to involve parties in the private and public sector and have the historic bridges relocated to other places where they are needed, not only through marketing and selling them, but also having them restored to their usual form before today’s automobiles started wearing them down again.

I had a chance to meet Ms. Bowers while at the Historic Bridge Conference in St. Louis in August and found that she was an optimistic person and a great supporter of historic bridge preservation. But there was an underlying reason of why she is into the business she is right now (and will be in the future)- and this falls on one of the bridges in Poweshiek County, Iowa- her place of origin- which was wiped out during the Floods of March 2010 and is one of the primary targets to have it restored to its usual form. I had a chance to conduct an online interview with the 2011 Ammann Legacy Award runner-up and after some editing work for content, I decided to post the dialogue here, so that the reader can learn more about her work and get involved in the effort to save a historic bridge in his/her own area, let alone assist in the work of Ms. Bowers and her organization, Workin’ Bridges. Here is what she has to say:

 

 

 How did you become interested in historic bridges (and preservation)?

Sunday afternoons in the fall would often find my family and friends at an old iron bridge. I remember being three and falling in the river from the deadfall – trees that would fall across the river to form a bridge were the most fun. In the background and always crossed – was the old arch bridge. I didn’t know it was historic, it was old, certainly. I was never afraid to drive over it. In 1989 they closed the road, but I was able to ask the Conservation Board for a key, because I felt our family should be grandfathered in to access to that area. Today Millgrove Access Wildlife Area is nearly 1200 acres of prairie, oak-hickory savannah, river  birch and boggy area.

 

Then I moved to California and fell in love with the Golden Gate, Richmond-San Rafael, Bay Bridge. When I moved back to Iowa with Laran (my daughter) in 2001, shortly after 9/11, we started the Sunday ritual at the river again, and introduced a lot more people to that bridge. It has served as a place for weddings and senior pictures, anniversaries and many parties. Magical place.

 

 

McIntyre Bridge remains. Photo taken in the first half of 2011 by Julie Bowers. Used with permission


 How are you connected with the McIntyre Bridge? Was it the source of inspiration for you to preserve and market historic bridges?

The McIntyre Bridge is how my career in historic bridges evolved.  I was the one that got the call on October 4, 2009 from Larry Bryan who had just been at morning coffee. Now, morning coffee, exists everywhere,  that is where you find out the news.  Larry asked when I called him back, “They are going to tear down your bridge, what are you going to do about it? “ I cried for three days, then decided that the bridge needed me. There was no other family member to step up and take charge. I was the one who put on the annual party. It was up to me. I was the only one that cared and it was just because my family spent Sundays there when I was a kid.

 

I started researching bridges and discovered restoration and preservation then, and I haven’t stopped yet. The Supervisors of Poweshiek County allowed us time to see what we could do about saving the bridge and we formed a friends group and then we formed a non profit. And then we lost our bridge, I think without that I wouldn’t be so stubborn about helping others. Knowing that I was one step behind has made all the difference in the world, but it is not easy, and if funds don’t come int, like with the Pepsi Challenge (a long shot for sure) or private donations. We just try to work for our money for restoration in these economic times. We adhere to the standards for restoration and that is how we market our bridges. Historic Antiques – Formerly on the List of recognized historical objects.

 

Funny story, my daughter and I shared a phone plan, and I got a call one day in early December, “MOM, what have you done to the phone, we are 700 dollars over our limit?” We fixed that by unlimited minutes but I had called nearly every construction and engineering firm in Iowa and no one could help me. Peterson Construction, Inc was the only construction company with cranes who said they would help. Research nationally brought Vern Mesler, Nathan Holth, Kitty Henderson, Eric Delony, Alan King Sloan. Vern and Nathan came to Iowa and told us that we could save the bridge, even if it fell in the river. It was leaning a lot and we didn’t know what to do. It took us a couple of months to become a non-profit – The N. Skunk River Greenbelt Association (NSRGA). Unfortunately, we lacked one signature for lifting the bridge at the end of February and by the 1stweek of March we had lost our window of opportunity to spring flooding for lifting the bridge off it’s piers..

 

We struggled with legal issues for 5 more months and finally found that two agreements needed to be made, a lease on the land, and the purchase of the bridge for $1. The agreement gives the bridge back when it is fixed. The County did not sign the agreements until after the bridge had been swept off it’s piers in early August 2010. Our organization insisted that we would take care of the bridge and see what we could do about salvaging and seeing if it could be fixed, the piers were still standing in the same place.

 

That was the day I called Vern to tell him that the bridge was gone. A couple days later he called back with a phone number that I wrote down on the back of an envelope, with a name Nels Raynor. It took a couple of weeks for me to call him, we didn’t know what to do. Nels came to Iowa and told us he was the one that could salvage and fix the bridge. He quoted us a very low price for the removal of the spans all all iron from the river that was way low, saying he knew we didn’t have money for this and he wanted to help us.” We were able to also help whim with a tax write-off for the rest of his time and energy, as the job took a little longer than he thought it might. That bridge went down fighting, about 150 feet downstream.

 

Piano Bridge in Fayette County, Texas. Photo taken by Julie Bowers. Used with permission.

Workin’ Bridges started from that meeting. I had done a lot of research and grant writing on the bowstring and found www.bridgehunter.com and historicbridges.org. Started doing some research, found a little King bridge in Texas that needed some help, and Nels and I made the trip to do the Scope of Work and Estimate for the restoration of the bridge. TxDOT won that project, but today I sit in Texas, waiting to start documenting the restoration of the Piano Bridge, with the team from Michigan, Nels and BACH Steel, and Scott Miller of Davis Construction Inc, of Lansing (DCI of Decatur, TX), who won the bid at my urging in early August. This little Piano Bridge has a lot of story for everyone to learn something, that old iron can be welded, that it is not intrinsically tired, and that pin connections can be trusted. I’ve learned a lot.

 

 What types of bridges do you market and preserve?

I take a lot of guidance from the bridgehunter nation as to which bridges should be saved and why. The Upper Bluffton Bridge in Winneshiek County, Iowa is one example of bridges that we got the contractor to save rather than scrap. Long Shoals Bridge in (Bourbon County) Kansas is an early 1900’s modified Parker that showed up on the TRUSS award from last year, I called the county commissioners and they listened and are now working on the permission to move that bridge to the city of Fort Scott.

 

My original research was on King Bowstrings, which branched out to King Bridges, which came back to other bowstrings. My work centers on the bridges built from the late 1860s to 1900. 1916 is the cutoff for most  of my interest, that is when American Steel, JP Morgan, the auto industry changed the bridge industry. Now I like all the bridges and determine their historic and local uses. As as artist I like how they frame a view,  you don’t get that with the concrete or train-car style of bridge. We look for different qualities for preservation, mostly if there is a use for the bridge.

Upper Bluffton Bridge before being moved off its foundations and onto a piece of land to be disassembled and relocated. Photo taken by the author in August 2009.

 

Our non-profit was fortunate to have some major donor’s working to help us with  the bowstring but funding is tight. That is another reason we started Workin’ Bridges, so that I could take the research, grant writing and bridge information I had learned over the last year and share it with others that needed help. The consulting fees help support our administrative budget, which isn’t covered by most grants. Our hope is to get in on some big projects that will ultimately fund our own bridge restoration, which is always a primary goal in my world. To that end we try to educate engineers and construction companies, county and city officials, DNR and County Conservation Boards, and regular folks like me, who just happen to own a bridge.

 

 What is the role of BACH Steel?

If only I had heard about Nels Raynor and BACH Steel when I first heard of Vern Mesler. In July of 2010, after Vern had come to Iowa to put on a metals workshop,  I read the book that the core group of bridge lovers had written which had a section on Nels. “A Community Guide to Historic Bridge Preservation” by Mike Mort from MSU. Anyway, coming from a construction background, Nels had the answers and the estimates that I needed. I didn’t need some historic preservationist,  I needed a contractor that worked with historic structures.  We started collaborating together when I was in  Michigan, getting an inventory and photographic details of bridge parts together for the bowstring’s Technical Advisor to the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) in Iowa .

 

BACH has, to date, only worked as a consultant to Workin’ Bridges on the site visits in Texas, Kansas, Arkansas but we hope to visit more bridges next year. The business model provides a way for the non-profit to work with the locals or purchase a bridge and work with it to find funding and a local group to support it. If the job goes to bid, BACH has the rights to bid it and hopefully the non-profit makes a finder’s fee. If Workin’ Bridges acts as the contractor , as in the bridges we own, then BACH works as the sub. It gets confusing but we have just started working with  Davis Construction Inc. from Lansing, MI that Nels had worked with previously. Hopefully, we can continue to work collaboratively to find more bridges to restore, and get them into a pipeline for scheduling so that we consistently have work.

Enochs Knob Bridge in Franklin County, Missouri. Photo taken by the author in August 2011

SUCCESS STORIES

The Long Shoals Bridge – awareness, grant writing, permission requested from NPS keeper of the National Register of Historic Places to move the bridge to Fort Scott. If the permission is granted, a grant has been written for $90,000 to help with the move and disassemble. Further grants and fundraising will have to take place for the restoration and reset.

Springfield Bridge – Faulkner County is pursuing funding for the restoration of the bridge in its original setting as a park. The bridge planking is in bad shape, and some irregular fixes happeed. Another King this is from 1873 and the differences in engineering will require some creativity on the part of the engineer. For the McIntyre Bowstring – Spicer Engineering of Saginaw, Michigan engineered the decking to become part of the lateral strength of the bridge. The Springfield does not have riveted lattice bracing on the verticals, that strengthening showed up in the late 1870s. The eyebars and floor beams are also different in the early bridge so it will be interesting to see how the engineers come up with loading.

McIntyre Bridge – Spicer Engineering has signed and sealed the plans for the restoration of the bowstring. BACH Steel has come up with a way to make the vertical posts and will fix the bridge once funding has been secured. That is the hardest part, we are out in the country with little support for this place.

Enochs Knob Road Bridge – Workin’ Bridges supplied Molly Hoffman with an estimate and Scope of Work for the bridge in Franklin County, Missouri. This bridge has been slated for replacement but our findings showed that another look at the engineering might make a difference in keeping it, although the approaches had been worked for a replacement structure. This would also be a great pedestrian/equestrian bridge but the local population doesn’t want the party contingent there. These bridges are magnets and it is up to us to educate those that hang out their on how to maintain and care for the bridges. Enochs Knob has a lot of ghost stories and history so it will be interesting to see where that project goes.

The Piano Bridge – Workin’ Bridges was given the rights to document the full restoration of this bridge. During my time talking about bridges, I have often had to defend the engineering without being an engineer. The engineers from TxDOT will talk about their reasons for restoring these bridges – low daily traffic and an alternate route are two of the criteria they look at when evaluating keeping bridges in their system. Texas will be doing a lot of restorations in the next two years from funds already allocated by legislature. The documentary / reality construction content will be utilized in a variety of ways, formats and hopefully find distribution to a wide audience, educating them about saving our historic resources.

Piano Bridge being dismantled with the bridge parts being sandblasted before being reassembled. Photo taken by Julie Bowers, used with permission

 


 What difficulties have you dealt with and how have you overcome them?

Most of preservation nation is made up of experts and consultants who consistently get the grant monies.

Bridges are not at the top of the list when it comes to granting or giving donor money.

Bridges were added to the National Register of Historic Places in the 90s from a grant from the National Parks Service,

Being listed on the National Register affords no protections from tearing down,  it might slow the process but it has no authority to dictate saving a project.

Local SHPOs don’t know much about historic bridges.

Section 106 is only of use when there is federal money involved and most projects that I look at are small county projects where there is no money. The counties have figures out if they don’t use the Federal money that regulations are different.

It has been very frustrating for our group for many reasons, not being in any town or city and being on the county line are drawbacks for resources.

 

Kern Bowstring Arch Bridge near Mankato, Minnesota: The longest bridge of its kind in the country and one of the bridges that Bowers wants to see saved. Photo taken by the author in Dec. 2007

How does Workin’ Bridges differ from other preservation groups?

 

We differ at Workin’ Bridges because we are a non-profit, we can do the construction and estimating of a project.  People need to know what a project is likely to cost before they can decide to move forward or to write a grant. Most grants don’t allow you to do any work on a project before the grant is approved. Workin’ Bridges can step in to bridge that gap so that the project has a solid basis and can move forward with good decisions.   We can also do the work from start to finish with our expert contractors. Sometimes a project has enough money right at the beginning to get something done, so waiting to go through bureaucratic hoops just costs money. Again, if we had been able to use the $50,000 to fix our bowstring in place we would have been way ahead of the game now.  And we aren’t out here to make a fortune, although it’s not that we don’t charge fair prices. And we turn any profits we make into the next project, so it is a win-win for bridges.

Nels’ expertise is what I needed when I was trying to save our bowstring, so that is what  I am trying to do for the community,  get him out there saving more bridges. He is just so knowledgeable and passionate about these bridges, and he is willing to work with me as I find more people that need help. As Nels put it after our visit to Arkansas and Kansas, “We do better work together” It’s good that I can use my background in architecture, design and data management and keep him in the field workin’ bridges.. We are making progress and 2012 has a lot of potential. We hope to be part of the work that goes on at the Cedar (Avenue) Bridge in Bloomington, Minnesota and hoping to start negotiations on the Kern Bowstring (near Mankato, Minnesota),  We also put in an option to be part of the Gilliece Bowstring restoration when it comes up for removal.

Workin’ Bridges also has bridges for a sale. Currently a bowstring, a King Post Pony and Pratt from Upper Bluffton, Iowa and several other pony trusses that are at BACH Steel in Michigan.

Winter is a great time for us to go out and do site visits and estimates,  spring is the time for grant writing,  late summer, fall and early winter a good time to get the work done. I hope Workin’ Bridges will be around for a long time,

I have utilized bridgehunter.com for finding projects from a variety of sources.  Nathan Holth of historicbridges.com does a great job of culling information from around the country and letting the rest of us know about different projects all around the country on their forum on on his own website.

The TRUSS awards last year on bridgehunter.com were the bridges we went after, and quickly I started asking questions on the forum. ., With the success of the Piano Bridge trip, where we had just delivered a product that was utilized to negotiate a better deal, I contacted Judge Scroggin in Faulkner County on the way back from Texas and he requested a site visit from us, which we executed in early April. I also contacted the local commissioners in Bourbon County, Kansas and went to visit them in January, 2011. I had been to many county level meetings during the bowstring ownership negotiations so I knew some of their concerns. I was blown away when they each said they were surprised that they could do anything with an NRHP historic bridge, having been told by previous members they could not touch it. When I suggested that they would be responsible when it fell into the river they were shocked and yet understood. Now ten months later they have a plan for the very historic Long Shoals to be the centerpiece of their river park, The Fort Scott /Bourbon County Riverfront Authority (FSBCRA) also had us estimate a King 1910 RR Bridge and Military (Marmaton) Bridge – a 3 King bowstring, both sited over the Marmaton River in Fort Scott and to be utilized for the trail system. The FSBCRA has already been granted over $1.5 for developing the roads and trails, and a bridge had already been specified for crossing in the master plan. Their willingness, even at many times the cost of the concrete pedestrian bridge specified for $100,000, is to be commended, Their executive team and county moved very quickly, realizing that they had a resource they had never considered before. They also see the economic value of a unique structure, one that is also a part of their history, that will add to the overall historic climate of the fort and downtown.

 

Gilliecie Bridge in Winneshiek County, Iowa- another bridge under the radar of Workin' Bridges as it will be replaced in 2012. Photo taken by the author in Oct. 2005

Can you specify with some examples?

 

Historicbridgerestoration.com

Vern’s Mesler’s mission is to train people about metals and how to work with them. That includes bridges and he has been on the forefront of getting that message out,. There is more work to do because many engineers still believe you can’t weld old iron and of course, no one hot rivets anymore and you can’t save that old bridge. We do! Or at least the team I work with does and we support all that takes the Historic Metals Workshop at Lansing Community College. It is worth the trip.

 

Historic Bridge Foundation

Located in Texas, this foundation brings together information to help in projects that utilize federal funding. Their board of directors is comprised of pontists whom I have mentioned previously. What I have found is that many counties don’t have that funding and are looking at other ways, like selling bridges to private organizations.

 

National Trust for Historic Preservation

Funds expert consultants, but if you don’t know what you need it is hard to write for the grant. Now I know the experts in engineering and with Workin’ Bridges Scope of Work – a grant can be effectively written for the expert planning required to begin, architectural or engineered plans.

 

The Keeper – Nels and I had a phone meeting with the Keeper of the Register, Carol Shull, and her deputies Paul Loether and Barbara Wyatt. They had many suggestions but were still adamant that site is very important to bridges and they would not allow permission for the Upper Bluffton Bridge to remain on the NRHP which would allow it to be eligible for grants. They were aware that Long Shoals was coming up but it had time to go through the process and more will be revealed. If permission isn’t granted, I don’t know that the Long Shoals bridge will still be a candidate for use in the river park. They also suggested working with the local EPAs to add a section where every property should be addressed historically, whether utilizing federal funds or not. Just a second look, in my opinion, would be great.

 

Everyone has their role to play,  the photographers and bridge experts at  bridgehunter adding to the mix daily, the historian at historicbridges.org analyzing each feature of everytype of bridge, but we look at these projects from a viewpoint of construction. These are big projects and most people don’t know where to start, so that is where we differ from Indiana or Pennsylvania, they have the product but it’s not easy to see it to completion. We can go all the way to landscaping if that is necessary, and we work with proven engineers experienced in truss bridges. As stated before preservation seems to add zero’s to a job, when that isn’t necessary. I think Workin’ Bridges fills a niche, we’ll see.

 

Eveland Bridge in Mahaska County, Iowa- another project in the making for Workin' Bridges once approved. Photo taken by Julie Bowers, used with permission.

What will the Future Hold for Workin’ Bridges?

NSRGA was started with one goal, to preserve the bowstring bridge and the greenbelt around it. I didn’t know it was a King and I didn’t know it had a name, we call it the Skunk River Bridge. I, quite frankly, thought all bowstrings were Hales, after I saw footage of the Jones County bowstring lift by the national guard. Our bridge is too big for the helicopters to lift so they couldn’t help me, but their may come a time when I too shall see another bowstring fly.

 

Some find it quite ironic that I am out here trying to save other bridges when  the McIntyre bowstring bridge lays in the backyard at BACH Steel. That delay, failure to find funds, forced the board to think outside the box. We want to restore our bridge and we were able to start and make Workin’ Bridges effective because we are a non – profit, and they trusted that I had the skills and education to make it work.  We’ve been at it almost a year.

 

Our model is similar to Habitat for Humanity or more closely to Dry Stone Conservancy. The Dry Stone Conservancy teaches masonry skills and offers competitions and a list of contractors.  I called them for information on contractors for some of the stone piers we are working with like Long Shoals where we will preserve as many original as possible.

 

I would like to develop contacts in every state. We know that BACH and Davis Construction can’t handle all of the jobs, and many state grants want their dollars to stay with experts in state.  so our mission to is find projects of any size and scope, and give the clients the  best estimate and quality workmanship  they can get. Davis Construction has also been certified in more states, including Iowa, so we are able to look at all kinds of projects, including some with Federal and Historic Monies. So we are either training or consulting in many states and also, when the jobs finally come up, we can go through the construction process. Davis at last word was estimating the Sutliff Bridge at Workin’ Bridges request and we are holding out that the Cedar Bridge Project in Bloomington will become a reality.

 

This results ultimately in restored iron bridges that can ultimately serve a population for several more generations. There are not that many iron experts, I know, I tried to find them. It is one of our missions to train the next generation of craftsmen while working on our own projects.  In the meantime, we  educate the elected officials that have the issue of “truss bridges” on their plates. We educate engineers and bridge lovers. We do that by showing the team working a complete restoration (at the Piano Bridge) in Dubina, Texas, explaining the process in detail, This documentation  should result in more people saving more bridges. Distribution will be key.  Funding is necessary. Anyone still has time to get in on the funding of this documentary as the big bridge lift happens the first of December or thereabouts.

Side view of the Cedar Avenue Bridge in Bloomington, Minnesota. Bridge has been closed and fenced off since 2002. Photo taken by the author in August 2011

Author’s Notes:

Since the interview, a pair of important points to pass along to the reader:

1. The Piano Bridge was dismantled during the first week of December of this year. The general plan is to sandblast and prime the truss parts and the pin-connections will be either repaired or replaced. It will then be reassembled on site and reopen to traffic sometime in the next year or so. It is touted as a success story for Workin’ Bridges although there are many bridges that are have been pursued and are close to being preserved.

Link: http://bridgehunter.com/tx/fayette/piano/

2. The Upper Bluffton Bridge appears to have found a home with a local snowmobile club, even though it is unclear where it would be relocated. The last time there was something mentioned about the bridge, it is still on a piece of land away from its original site. The future of the bridge remains unclear from this point on. However, the Gilliecie Bridge will be replaced as soon as the funding is available even though the bridge will be up for the taking. Should a party take on the bridge, it will need to be dismantled and completely restored, especially because of the damage to the upper chord of the bridge.

Links: http://skunkriverbridge.org/the-project.html

3. The Long Shoals Bridge will be relocated to Fort Scott as soon as the funding for the relocation is available. It will be used along with some other historic bridges as a pedestrian bridge. At the moment, almost $1.7 million has been awarded to the Riverfront Authority and another $3.3 million is needed to complete the project, including $90,000 for relocating the Long Shoals Bridge to the park.

Link: http://www.fstribune.com/story/1758410.html

http://bridgehunter.com/ks/bourbon/long-shoals/

4. For more information on how you can help with the projects that Workin’ Bridges is carrying out, use this link to contact Julie Bowers: http://skunkriverbridge.org/  The author would also like to thank Ms. Bowers for the use of some of her photos of the bridges that are either the target of her next projects or are currently undergoing renovation and/or relocation.

 


 

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