Mystery Bridge 1: Horn’s Ferry Bridge in Marion County, Iowa

This and the following photos were taken by the author in August 2011

When it comes to mystery bridges, there are two types of mysteries that exist with regards to historic bridges: 1. A historic bridge that existed in the past but there is no information on its location, let alone when it was built (or rewording it, information from oral sources probably existed, but they have long since moved on), and 2. The bridge existed but in pieces that are visible today but with little or no information as to why it was reduced to a fragment of what it once looked like when in service.  The Horn’s Ferry Bridge in Marion County belongs to both categories as this article will explain further.

According to information found on the bridge via information plaque, the Horn’s Ferry Bridge was the first bridge to cross the Des Moines River in Marion County when it opened to traffic in 1881, replacing a ferry which had previously crossed the river since 1865. The structure featured the following bridge types going from west to east: six-Pratt pony truss spans (each being 100 feet), a 200-foot Camelback through truss span, a 140-foot riveted Pratt through truss span and lastly before reaching shore, a 90-foot Warren pony truss span.  The bridge was closed to traffic in 1982 when a new crossing at the Red Rock Dam (located 700 feet upstream) was built, but remained open to pedestrians until the night of 31 August 1992, when one of the stone piers collapsed, sending 300 feet of the bridge into the river in a slow, agonizing motion. For safety reasons, that section, plus three additional Pratt pony truss spans were removed, while at the same time, to assure there is a connection for cyclists and pedestrians, a mail-order Pratt pony truss bridge was constructed by the Continental Bridge Company of Alexandria, Minnesota, approximately 300 feet north of the original crossing.  Today, the remaining four spans of the Horn’s Ferry Bridge- two 100-foot Pratt pony truss spans on the west side at Ivan’s Campground and the Pratt through truss and Warren pony truss spans on the east end at Howell Station Campground remain in tact and function as observation decks overlook the opposite banks.

The bridge was first spotted via Google Map as I was planning my US trip in the spring of last year, but from the Red Rock Dam, where county highway T-17 crosses the Des Moines River, it is easy to see the crossing, let alone access it from the two campgrounds. Yet taking a closer look at the bridge, one can see there are some questions that are left open to be answered. Some of which can be seen in the photos below. First and foremost, the bridge was one of the longest wagon bridges to cross the Des Moines River in Iowa  at 1000 feet. (some other bridges, like the Wagon Wheel Bridge near Boone and the crossings in Van Buren County are either close to the bridge’s length or even longer). A wagon bridge means that the bridge was originally built for horse and buggy and later modified to accommodate cars and trucks.  Yet the information is lacking with regards to the bridge builder, let alone what the bridge originally looked like before the structure collapsed in 1992. Therefore the bridge was not listed on the National Register of Historic Places, nor did it appear on the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Historic Bridges website, which has been unavailable for some time. In the minds of many, the bridge was put to the backburner until my visit in August last year, when I photographed and posted photos of the bridge on James Baughn’s Bridgehunter website. Since then, calls have gotten louder from those interested to pursue the inquiry.  But…

Perhaps one can also help solve the clue to another mystery located next to the bridge. At the two ends of the now converted observation deck are wood pilings sticking up vertically from the river to make it look like piers used for another bridge crossing. Both of them appeared to have aged greatly as wood splits have appeared in the piers and are spalling. Could it be that a temporary bridge was built to assist construction crews in removing the wreckage from the 1992 disaster, or are these remnants of an even older span? It is possible that the pilings were also used to guide ferries across the river  prior to the bridge being built. In either case, the quest to solve these two burning questions remains open and will be the case until someone steps up to assist in the information.

Questions about the Mystery Bridge:

1. Who was the builder of the Horn’s Ferry Bridge and what did the bridge look like before 1992

2. What do the pilings next to the bridge tell us in regards to its history: Was there a bridge built beforehand and if so, what did it look like? Was it part of the ferry service that had existed before the bridge was built in 1881?

3. What was the cause of the bridge collapse on 31 August 1992?

Please send the answers directly via e-mail or to the The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles page on facebook and as soon as the respondents provide the clues, the answer will be posted. Photos (esp. of the bridge prior to 1992) are strongly encouraged as long as you provide the source so that I can note this when posting them. Thanks!

Photos of the bridge can be seen via Bridgehunter.com, which you can click on here.

West approach with the truss spans.

The west truss spans (now an observation deck)

The wood pilings: ferry remnants, a previous bridge, a temporary bridge used to dismantle the fallen span?

The eastern spans (also used as an observation deck)

Damage to the pier of the Pratt through truss span.

Oblique view of the east spans

The eastern approach with park banches and info plaques

The Red Rock Dam, where the route between the two campgrounds now runs across.

Interesting facts:

1. This year will mark the 30th anniversary of the bridge being converted to recreational use with the main highway being rerouted over the dam. Unfortunately it will also mark the 20th anniversary of the bridge’s (near-) tragedy for unknown reasons. It was really fortunate that the groups involved fought to keep the remaining spans standing to be used as observation decks, but it would be curious to know the causes of the bridge collapse.

2. While little known to the pontist community, some people have tried to keep the memory of the bridge alive through marketing, like this attempt to sell the Horn’s Ferry Bridge mousepad, for example. There is hope that someday, a history book on the bridge will be written, although it will be mentioned in a book I’m writing about Iowa’s truss bridges. More information to come in the next posting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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7 Responses to Mystery Bridge 1: Horn’s Ferry Bridge in Marion County, Iowa

  1. Jim Griffin says:

    I thought I was having difficulty finding information about an old bridge! Great site – very much appreciated – plus all the links. I am doing research on a bridge built in 1893 and removed in 1960-63 – have found only one poor photograph and very few references. Good to know I am not alone!

  2. Larry Brown says:

    A history of the bridge can be found in the book “History of Marion County” published in 1915. A quick Google search can uncover it. Good Luck.

  3. Larry Brown says:

    This is the link I found.
    History of Marion County, Iowa, and Its People – Google Books

    • Thanks for the link. I received a PDF copy of the article from the Pella library a few weeks ago and there are still some questions to be answered as to why the bridge collapsed. Hopefully I can get them answered through the oral sources who were closest to the bridge soon.

  4. V. Dale Reif says:

    I have a picture of my grandparents and their family taken on the bridge in the 1920s. I can send a copy if you tell me how.

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