Something Old and Something New at the Historic Bridge Weekend

Cascade Bridge in Burlington, Iowa. One of many bridges visited on the tour.

Open-air presentations, reunion with old friends and colleagues, incredible bridge finds
There is a first time in everything. This old saying can be applied to this year’s Historic Bridge Weekend, which took place August 9-12 in eastern Iowa. While we had a total of 23 participants from all over the US and Germany at the four-day event, which in the face of the Iowa State Fair and the Knoxville Nationals that took place at the same time, was a sizable turnout, we did have some firsts that made the four-day event memorable for everyone. We had the youngest presenter talking about bridges- aged 15. We had the youngest participant, who was four years old and was also pictured in an article produced by the Iowa City Press Citizen crossing the Sutliff Bridge. We had our first open-air presentations on the night we dedicated to a special pontist who worked to save many bridges in Iowa. The bridgehunting tour featured a bridge-smorgasbord, meaning people can visit the bridges they wanted to go to- and got some great pics in addition to that. This first time event is despite the fact that we had a guided tour. And even though the four-day event was also a first (for the Weekend usually takes place Friday to Sunday), the fourth day featured a tour through the life of a girl who saved many lives from a train wreck, which downed one bridge, but not before having to cross a long bridge on her hands and knees in the face of a fierce storm with torrential flooding. While some points from the 2013 Weekend will be detailed in future articles and photos of the Weekend can be found on the Chronicles’ facebook site (click here to get to the site), here are some highlights of the events that made the fifth annual Weekend an interesting success story.

Stone City General Store and Restaurant: site of the open-air dedication ceremony on Friday

Open-air presentation:
In the fresh air with only the Wapsi-secadas chirping along the Wapsipinicon River, singing in the background, the Friday night dedication dinner honoring the late James Hippen took place at the Stone City General Store and Restaurant located three miles west of Anamosa. Elaine Hippen, widow of the late history professor at Luther College who died in February 2010, and Bill Moellering, former engineer for Fayette County who was close friends with Mr. Hippen, spoke at the event. Due to the missing conference room and lots of noise, the presentations took place on the front terrace of the restaurant where the secadas dominated the background noise mainly. This makeshift concept was well-received and gave some people an idea of how to have an open-air evening of the Weekend in the future, yet such an event would require a venue that is quiet and cut off from the usual crowd, which at the General Store was very noisy and full of Bachelors.

 

Ely Stret Bridge in Bertram

Saturday Morning Bridge Tour:

While this year’s bridgehunting tour featured a smorgasbord, which meant that participants can pick and choose which bridges to visit, several people took advantage of the Saturday morning bridge tour, which was given by Quinn Phelan and started at the Anamosa Bridge before going to a restored covered bridge, the Upper Paris Bridge, and three other bridges in and around the Bertram area, located east of Cedar Rapids. After ending the tour at the Ely Street Bridge, we went to the F.W. Kent Park west of Iowa City to look at several truss bridges that were relocated from parts of Johnson County to be used on the bike trail. The park features several miles of trails, a lake with swimming possibilities and some playgrounds. As for the bridges, here’s the Chronicles’ Guessing Quiz for you to ponder and answer:

How many truss bridges are located at F.W. Kent Park?

When was the park first conceived?

The answer will come when the article on this park is posted as part of the series on Iowa’s bridges and the Historic Bridge Weekend.

Sutliff Bridge near Mt. Vernon. Photo taken by Birgit Smith

 

Paying Homage to an Iowa Icon:

After allowing some time to see other bridges in the afternoon, Saturday night’s presentation and dinner took place at Baxa’s Sutliff Restaurant and Tavern, located across the road from the three-span Sutliff Bridge. Built in 1898 over the Cedar River, the bridge served traffic until being converted to a pedestrian crossing in the 1980s and had remained intact until floodwaters amputated the easternmost span and its west approaches on 13 June, 2008. Four years and a couple million dollars later, the bridge reopened with a replica span in place. Randy Owl, who owns the Restaurant and is Vice President of the Sutliff Bridge Authority took 30 minutes to talk about the bridge to approx. 21 people who attended the event. Nathan Holth and John Marvig also took some time to talk about their work. Mr. Holth’s Historic Bridges,org is celebrating its 10-year anniversary, while Mr. Marvig talked about railroad bridges in Iowa, focusing on the crossings in the Quad Cities and Dubuque areas.

A Tour Back into Time:

After a presentation on the bridges of Marion County and the Silent Auction on Sunday in Pella, the four-day event concluded with a trip back into time to honor a young girl who saved many lives. A dozen people took part in the tour of Kate Shelley and the bridges which bear her name in history and her honor. The tour, conducted by Pamela Schwarz, started at the Boone County Historical Museum in Boone and took us to the Kate Shelley Viaduct, the Wagon Wheel Bridge located north of the viaduct, the remains of the Honey Creek Bridge, the site of where the bridge collapsed in a storm on the night of July 6th, 1881. Ms. Shelley’s farm was located nearby and she heard the bridge collapse that night. And finally the tour ended at Moingona, the site of the train station where Kate informed the tenant of the accident and approaching train. Behind the station was the remants of the Des Moines River bridge where Kate crawled across the bridge to get help.  Misty McNally created a pop quiz on Kate Shelley and her heroic deeds and it will be posted in the next article.

Reunion with old friends and colleagues:

For one person, the Historic Bridge Weekend provided a special treat as it a chance to reunite with some old friends. Bill Moellering was the county engineer for Fayette County from 1964 until his retirement in 2001 and collaborated closely with James Hippen on saving the bridges in his county- namely by bypassing them and leaving them in place- as it was the most cost-effective measure at that time. An article on the bridges in the county is in the works and will come out soon. It also included some help from the Iowa DOT in identifying the most significant bridges and determining which ones should be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While meeting new people at the Weekend, he reunited with Jim’s widow Elaine at the Friday night event and shared some memories of his days working together with the historian. Judy McDonald, who was historian at the Iowa DOT before retiring in 2009, also had an opportunity to visit with him for the first time in many years, while on the Kate Shelley tour.  Despite all the travels he and his son Jack went through on the Weekend tour to visit some of the finest bridges in the state, Bill was the star of the show as he shared some interesting stories with others, many of which were unforgettable. It also garnered some media attention at home in West Union, as the county recently turned to him for some guidance on how to reuse the bridges that have been serving as objects for tourists and pontists to see. More on the latest developments can be found here.

 

What’s next?

Despite a successful turnout overall, combined with a successful silent auction in the face of a few participants at Bos Landen on Sunday, and lots of memories while on the bridgehunting tour, some lessons for the next Historic Bridge Weekend can and will be taken with for the next coordinators to organize. While it is highly unlikely that we will have a four-day event like this again (or if so, it’ll be a Thursday through Sunday ordeal), the next Historic Bridge Weekend in 2014, which appears to be going to Michigan will be more local as many regions have numerous bridges within a 150-mile radius. Less is more when it comes to travelling to see the historic bridges, especially because of gas prices but also one has a chance to see more and visit more. This will be key when planning for future Weekends, as some areas in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana will be targets for bridge enthusiasts to visit and photograph. Also interesting is to find out how to include children in the Historic Bridge Weekend, for as we see in this year’s event, the interest in historic bridges has increased with each generation. The question is how to make the event more interesting for children without having to bore them with travelling long distances just to see a bridge. As mentioned many times, a bridge is just an ordinary bridge unless it has historic and aesthetic value and/or unique design for people to see. It is more of a question of marketing this so that people can understand better how bridges play a role in the country’s infrastructure and America’s history, which seems to evolve around making things better for everyone to use and learn.

Author’s note: Some of the bridges highlighted on the tour will be featured in separate articles, including the Cascade Bridge in Burlington, the Bridges of Marion, Winneshiek and Fayette Counties and Bunker Mill Bridge near Kalona- the last of which has its future hanging in the balance because of a fire that destroyed the bridge’s flooring on the morning of the 12th. Stay tuned for more articles to come.

But first……

 

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