Three Bridges Gone, Two Collapsed, One Dead

Fort Keogh Bridge in Montana, now demolished. Photo courtesy of HABS-HAER

There is a proverb that was passed down to the author by a friend of mine from Minnesota during a bridgehunting tour a couple years ago: Taking care of a valuable thing in life can prolong its life.  Sadly, as far as bridges are concerned, this proverb cannot be taken lightly as neglect and carelessness can destroy a structure with one swift drop into the ravine. In some cases, lives are sacrificed and the value of the structure is lost forever.

Three historic bridge tragedies have come to light in the last month clearly shows the neglect people have taken to maintain or in cases of damage caused by natural disasters, fix the structure to use again. The mentality seems to be that a bridge is to be crossed and if it means exceeding the weight limit. If a bridge is unable to hold traffic, it goes but without considering alternative crossings as a way of saving money and leaving the structure alone for lighter vehicles to cross.  The trouble with these three bridges is that there was little to no media coverage, thus allowing grassroots writers and even bridge websites like this one to fill in the vacuum. Part of that has to do with the Presidential Elections in the USA, which many people are looking forward to it being over with after today. But the other part has to do with the fact that various mediums have focused on issues that are of marginal importance and not on those that matter the most. In the case of one of the bridges that collapsed, one person died of his injuries the next day.  It is hoped that after the Elections are finished, that society and the media can focus on the real issues that matter the most. In this case, ways to preserve and maintain historic bridges for people to use in the future, while at the same time, make them safe for crossing- or if it is not safe, provide alternatives so that drivers can cross to get from point A to point B.

Here are the obituaries of the three bridges:

Fort Keogh Bridge near Miles City, Montana:

Built in 1902 by the Hewett Bridge Company, this two-span Pennsylvania through truss bridge was perhaps the most ornamental of the bridges along the Yellowstone River, which flows into the Missouri River. Sadly though, flooding in 2011 sealed the bridge’s fate as one of the approach spans collapsed and one of the main spans leaned over. Despite pleas from the pontists and preservationists to salvage the bridge for reuse, plans went ahead to demolish the bridge in its entirety. While it was planned in the fall of 2012, it took place with next to no notice this past spring. The bad news was given to the author this past weekend by the state historical society. This tragedy will definitely end up on one pontist’s Wall of Shame because of its discreteness of the whole process, combined with lack of information and will to at least communicate regarding alternatives to demolition. It is questioned whether this act violated the preservation laws (especially Section 106), but no word on that aspect has been given.

Side view of the collapsed structure. Photo courtesy of Sherman Cahal

Old KY Hwy. 1657 Bridge near Falmouth, Kentucky:

Located over the South Branch of Grassy Creek, this bridge is typical of the standardized riveted Pratt through truss bridges that were built in the late 1910s and early 1920s. It was bypassed by a new bridge over a decade ago and became private property. Sadly, the bridge collapsed on 28 October in the evening when Craig Ruber, who owned a landscape store and was part of the Grant County Farm Board, tried crossing the bridge while hauling hay. The weight was too much for the bridge and the truss structure dropped into the river. He died of injuries sustained in the 20-foot fall. Sherman Cahal, who runs a blog bearing the name Bridges and Tunnels, visited the bridge before and after the collapse and provided some details of the structure, which you can click on here.

CGW Bridge and its collapsed span. Photo courtesy of Andy Winegar
The bridge taken at the same site last summer. Courtesy of the author.

Chicago and Great Western Railroad Bridge in Des Moines, Iowa:

The City of Des Moines has a wide array of unique bridges, both in modern terms as well as in historical terms. The CGW Bridge, built between 1893 and 1901 over the Des Moines River, is one of those structures. The bridge features four Pratt through truss spans built on a skew of approximately 20°. When it was abandoned and later bought by the city in 2002, it was hoped that the bridge would become a valued asset for the bike trail network serving the city of 230,000 inhabitants. After the collapse of one of the main spans a week ago, the future of the bridge is anything but certain. While fire caused by arson last year may have contributed to the weakening of the bridge, the main culprit was a crumbling pier supporting the third and fourth spans (going east to west). While it did not receive much attention by the media, this mishap is not unfamiliar, for another Des Moines River Crossing, the Horn’s Ferry Bridge in Marion County, suffered a similar fate 20 years ago. It is unclear what will happen to the CGW Bridge except the options are on the table: replacement span through a girder type structure, conversion into a pier like it happened at Horn’s Ferry, or complete demolition and removal. Given the work being done at the site, it appears that the third option may be exercised. But we will not know until we have clearer details by the city and the contractors involved.

Close-up of the cracked piers. Photo courtesy of John Marvig
Work being done at the bridge site. Photo courtesy of Andy Winegar

12 Responses

  1. John Marvig

    I am not sure if it will be taken down, as it is considered historic by the city.

    It’s a shame that it was allowed to happen though…

  2. John Marvig

    Another bridgehunter from Des Moines says it is likley a crane working to pull logs and debris out of the river accidentally hit the pier, causing the span to collapse. This might change the demolition plans then….

    1. I can’t believe they are taking this bridge down! Is there a particular reason why this is the case? It’s heinous enough that a collapse was never reported by the media, but a DEMOLITION???? It’s a travesty for a city that prides itself in its historic bridges. Will they build a new one in its place or just remove the whole thing altogether?

  3. Chris Johnson

    This is a total demo. We walked completely over this bridge a year or two ago…I knew that some of the ties had experienced a fire and that they had been chainsawed out of the 2nd span, but the steel framework was still there…I thought that the demo company had removed the railbed steel as well…and that the larger beams were removed by them and not collapsed. The railbed and ties have been completely removed from the far West span as of 11/12/12, and they will begin to bring down the steel soon.
    I have spoken with the gentleman-“Mike” doing the work.
    The piers will even be busted down to nothing.
    And yes no media coverage whats-so-ever, none.
    And poof it will be gone. Forever.
    I have been documenting it’s demise and have
    posted numerous photo albums on a facebook site called Lost Des Moines, and
    also on a facebook group site called CJ’sPhotoGrapics-Des Moines, IA.
    Thanks for letting me comment. C J

  4. CJ,
    I would love to use your photos and documentaries to do a follow-up on the bridge. Plus I’m writing a book on Iowa’s truss bridges and would like to use its demise as an example of how truss bridges are being neglected and vandalized to a point where they have to be removed. Please send me all that you have to the e-mail address below:

    Thank you for the information you provided.

  5. Chris Johnson

    Jason D. Smith- I would be glad to help you out in any way possible.
    As John Marvig is aware of- I have been following the demolision of this bridge for quite some time and some of my photos can be viewed on my facebook group site:
    CJ’s PhotoGrapics-Des Moines, IA, or the group site for: Lost Des Moines on
    facebook. I have shot 1000’s of photos of this demo. I do not use gmail, so I can not reach you through the link above.
    CJ’s PhotoGrapics-Des Moines, IA

  6. Chris "C J" Johnson

    I am in the process of combing through the 10K or so photos that I shot during this demo process…I lost all photos because of a corruption in my computer photo files…and have had them all restored…Unfortunately they are now in date order instead of alpha order so they are spread out…I will try to get these in order and pass as many along to you and John both as ssoon as I am able to.

    Take Care,
    Chris “C J” Johnson,

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