The Bridges of Des Moines Part II: The Arch Bridges

Court Avenue Bridge in Des Moines Photos taken in August 2011

After a night photo tour of the bridges in Iowa’s state capital, the next segment will look at the arch bridges serving the city of 250,000. Like many cities in the US, these bridge types were successors to truss bridges built between 1870 and 1880 and made of either iron or steel. In one case, the predecessor was a Post through truss bridge, reported to have been the lone bridge of its kind built in the state. These bridges were built out of concrete, either made with gravel or clay. Two periods should be noted when the bridges were built: the one between 1909 and 1920, when these bridges were built using a closed spandrel design. Four of them were built using a combination of gravel and clay as materials, albeit three of them are still in service today. Then there was the period between 1918 and 1940, where the structures were built using the open spandrel design and gravel for concrete as materials. The Scott Avenue and the previously mentioned Meredith Bikeway Bridges are the youngest bridges that are still standing in Des Moines, each built in 1937 during the period of the Works Progress Administration. Most of the bridge construction were the work of a local bridge builder who became known for his patented rainbow arch bridges. James B. Marsh dominated the bridge building scenery, first while working for the King Bridge Company with its branch office in Des Moines and later as an independent entity known as the Marsh Bridge Company. While there is speculation that the Seventh Street Bridge over Raccoon River may have been built by him (judging by the arch design that is similar to the rainbow arch), he is credited for building four of the arch bridges in Des Moines, one of which was with the help of another bridge engineer, George Koss, whose business was (and still is)  located in Des Moines, as well.

All but two of these bridges are being renovated even as this article is being posted. The reason for this is to strengthen them against the floodwaters. This is all part of the long-term plan to ease flooding which had affected the city on four different occasions: 1993, 2008, 2011 and last year. How exactly will this be done remains to be seen, but already work is being carried out on the Scott Avenue Bridge at present. The plan is to rehabilitate the bridge one-by- one before 2020, while raising the dikes and the Red Bridge.  Two of the bridges are not affected, for the Grand Avenue Bridge over Walnut Creek has been replaced and the St. John’s Road Bridge is spared from the work because of its location away from the Raccoon River.

Despite the construction going on, one can see the bridges in their place while touring Des Moines, even though the best time to photograph them are either in the day time or on a cloudy evening when the city lights illuminate the skies. Here are the bridges worth seeing while in Des Moines (just click onto the names to get to the external links):

Locust Street Bridge:   The Locust Street Bridge has the reputation of being the only crossing to have been built twice by the same builder. James B. Marsh built the three-span Pratt through truss bridge in the 1880s while working for the King Bridge Company. He later replaced it with the present bridge in 1909. The bridge features a closed spandrel arch bridge with the gravel concrete arch being filled in with  brown-colored clay. The bridge is 447 feet long with six spans total. It was rehabilitated in 1967 as part of the urban renewal project and remnants can be seen on the bridge, going beyond the 60s-style street lamps. Yet it will not be long before a rehabilitation and renovation will come to this bridge, prolonging its life and making it more attractive.

Court Avenue Bridge:
Located over the Des Moines River, this 496 foot long bridge features five spans of the closed spandrel arch bridge and is the most ornamental of the arch bridges in Des Moines. The bridge was designed by James Marsh and constructed by George Koss’s company in 1917 and serves as a key link between Des Moines’ city center and the State Capitol. The bridge was rehabilitated in 1986 as part of the construction project to redesign the street and eliminate the Capitol Hill Tunnel (the latter occurred in 1992). Today, it still serves as the important link between the two entities, with the lighting making it more attractive to photographers at night. This bridge replaced the Post through truss bridge built in the 1870s and is the only one known to have been built in Iowa thusfar.

Grand Avenue Bridges The Grand Avenue Bridges featured two closed spandrel arch bridges located within four miles of each other: the Walnut Creek Bridge, which was built in 1914 and featured two spans totalling 168 feet, and the Des Moines River crossing, built in 1918 and totalling 495 feet worth of six spans and looking identical to the Locust Street Bridge. The 1914 bridge was recently demolished and is being replaced at the time of this post, whereas the 1918 span is slated for extensive rehabilitation in the near future.

Walnut Street Bridge: Spanning the Des Moines River, this bridge was one of four built by James Marsh and features a closed spandrel arch bridge design similar to the ones on Locust Street and Grand Avenue. The 1911 structure features five arches totalling 503 feet, yet like the Locust Street Bridge, it has seen better days since its rehabilitation in 1967 featuring modern railings and 60s-style street lamps. Yet with its next rehabilitation, it might change that state. Interesting fact is the fact that the bridge replaced a bowstring arch bridge built in 1871. Although unknown who the bridge builder was, it appeared to have been the longest bridge of its kind in the state and even surpassing the still exant Kern Bridge in Mankato in neighboring Minnesota. Evidence is needed to support this claim, though.

Scott Avenue Bridge  
The Scott Avenue Bridge is located over the Des Moines River at the junction of the Raccoon River and the Meredith Bikeway Bridge. Built in 1937, this bridge may have been part of the Works Progress Administration project, authorized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to get people back into the work force. The five-span open spandrel arch bridge is 747 feet long and the thickness of the arch is similar to the Seventh Street Bridge spanning Raccoon River. But it is unknown whether Marsh, Koss or another bridge builder was responsible for building this bridge. During the visit in 2013, the bridge was closed to all traffic because of rehabilitation. But it did not stop those from making a stop at the nearby Mullet’s restaurant, which serves local specialties, including fish and the like.

 

Seventh Street Raccoon River Bridge 
The Seventh Street Bridge over Raccoon River is the second longest but the tallest of the deck arch bridges in Des Moines. Built in 1915, the bridge is 800 feet long with the height above water being over 40 feet. The bridge features a four-span open spandrel arch bridge which can be easily seen from a mile away. Yet the best photo opportunity can be found at the Fifth Street Pedestrian Bridge.

University Avenue Bridge  
More information is needed for the University Avenue Bridge, located north of the I-235 Bridge. According to current data, the bridge was built in 1920, although when exactly it was built, let alone who built it was unknown. It is known that the bridge is an open spandrel arch bridge featuring seven arches, totalling 850 feet, making it the longest bridge of its type in Des Moines. Although not visible from the interstate bridge, one can see it from the bike trail going along the Des Moines River, which the bridge serves. The bridge serves as an important link between Drake University on the west end of the bridge and the Iowa State Fair, located two miles to the east.

St. John’s Road Bridge  Located over an unnamed creek north of Water Works Park, the St. John’s Road Bridge is famous for its ornamental bracings made of concrete, together with the rest of the one-span closed spandrel arch span. Built in 1900, the bridge is only 40 feet long, yet its features will make the driver pull over for a short photo opportunity.

While most of the arch bridges are still in use, the truss bridges on the other hand have disappeared in large numbers, making it very difficult to determine when they were built and who were the contractors for these metal bridges. In the third part of the series on Des Moines’ bridges, we’ll focus on the lost bridges of Des Moines but will feature the ones that were not mentioned but are still important parts of the city’s history. The bridges mentioned in the first and second part and the CGW Railroad Bridges will not be a part of this article for their histories have been mentioned already.

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