What to do with a Historic Bridge: Fifth Street Pedestrian Bridge in Des Moines

Fifth Avenue/ Jackson Street Pedestrian Bridge in Des Moines. Photo taken in August 2013

The Fifth Street Pedestrian Bridge, also known as the Green Bridge, is one of many bridges of its kind that is part of Des Moines’ heritage because of its contribution to the city’s history and infrastructure. Built in 1898 by a local bridge builder, J.H. Killmar, with help from the George E. King Bridge Company, using steel from the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company of Pittsburgh, the Green Bridge features three Pratt through truss spans that are pinned connected and have Howe Lattice portal bracings that resemble the characteristics of the through truss spans built by King at that time. Yet the uniqueness of the bridge lies not within its aesthetic design and its integral part of the City’s network along the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers, but within its history.

Already at the start of the bidding for a new crossing, there was a bidding war regarding where the structure should be built between the “East Siders” who wanted a crossing over the Des Moines River at Sixth Street to provide a key connection between the City and the agricultural areas, and the “West Siders” who wanted a crossing at Fifth Street over the Raccoon River to provide access to the business district from the south end. This was in connection with the $30,000 in unappropriated funds the city council had put up for grabs. The “West Siders”, led by the Clifton Land Company, won the competition and the bidding was let out to the bridge company who would put a crossing over the Raccoon River, while land owners foot the bill for the abutments and flood control. The contract was given to J.H. Killmar in July 1896, but was not validated due to a lawsuit brought forth by the competing bridge contractors, who practiced the bidding combine- a practice where competing bridge companies “…would appoint several high bidders and one low bidder for each project. In this fashion, they could predict who would win the project, the low-bidder, and each contractor would take turns submitting the lowest bid for various projects. The only snag in this plan is that all contractors bidding on a project must be members of the combine for the scheme to work successfully.”(Fraser, 1993)  According to the bridge survey conducted in 1993, such bidding practice was considered immoral and illegal, and Killmar managed to be the outsider who received a generous contract allowing him to build his masterpiece. While the Lower Court ruled in favor of the bridge combine, Killmar and the City appealed to the State Supreme Court, which overturned the ruling on October 27th, 1897. Right after the ruling, Killmar commenced with his work, and despite bad weather and delays in the shipment of steel and other materials, the bridge was completed on June 22nd, 1898, at the cost of $19,000.

The bridge served traffic for 95 years until structural issues, caused by wear and tear, combined with damages from the Great Flood of 1993 forced its closure. Yet because of its significance to the city’s history, plus it represented one of the finest examples of bridges built by Killmar and King, the bridge received its listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. At the same time, the structure was rehabilitated and converted to bike and pedestrian trail use and became an integral part of the City’s bike trail system. It is one of eight bridges in the city that one can see lit up at night and still provides access to the southern suburbs from the city center.

With all the conflicts that had occurred when constructing the bridge, there is one on the horizon involving its possible demolition and removal. Structural deficiencies in the bridge led the City to close the bridge in March 2013, and the bridge has been closed since then. Word has gone around the City that the closure will be indefinite with plans to remove the entire structure being decided upon by the city council.  A lot is at stake with this bridge, yet the reasons for the demolition seem lame. The Army Corp. of Engineers claim that there are too many bridges along the Raccoon River making the southern part of the city vulnerable, yet there are just as many bridges along the Des Moines River going through downtown as the ones along the Raccoon. Even more notable are the bridge types, for the Fifth Street Bridge is the only bridge of its kind remaining along the Raccoon River, and all it would take is to raise the structure four feet to alleviate the floodwaters, which occurs once in 100 years. It would be mammoth of an effort to do the same thing with the concrete arch bridges located next to the bridge.  Then there is the claim of structural issues, which included problems with the bridge decking and the questionable repairs made on the bridge in 1998. Yet they were not specified in detail for people to understand.  This should lead to questions being raised as to: 1. What exactly are the structural issues noted on the bridge, 2. Could they be fixed at an affordable price (99.9% of the time, the answer to that question is “yes.”), and finally, 3. Why were these structural issues not addressed when the bridge was rehabilitated and converted into a pedestrian/bike crossing 15 years ago?  If the claim that the City does not want to maintain the bridge anymore is true (which was mentioned by many discussing about the situation), then the council members are a mile away from reality, for the City is obliged to maintain all of its bridges, including the pedestrian ones, to ensure that they are safe and they last a long time.

 

It is unknown what the future holds for the bridge, but the majority of the population favors fixing and reopening the bridge. Even more so, they demand an explanation as to why they are unwilling to put more money into a bridge like this one, which appears to be in pristine condition with perhaps some minor repairs and new paint needed, which will cost half the amount the City claimed it will cost ($1.75 million in comparison to $750,000 needed to demolish the bridge).  Furthermore, as the bridge is a National Landmark, the City will eventually be locking horns with the State and Federal Governments, which will force them to reconsider their stance. It was already done with the Cedar Avenue Bridge in Bloomington, Minnesota, 150 miles north of the state capital, back in August, even though problems the bridge has is similar to what is on the Green Bridge. Work will commence on restoring the five-span truss bridge next year, with a target plan of reopening it in 2015. With successes involving the Cascade and Wagon Wheel Bridges, the State will not hesitate to put a stop to the plans, which will be a blessing to those who favor keeping the Green Bridge in tact.

 

In the end, the future of the bridge will lie in the hands of the people of the City. While the CGW Railroad Bridge was demolished due to flood damage and arson which made even restoring the structure useless, the City will not accept losing another historic bridge because of something that can be fixed. With fewer truss bridges left in the state, people will stand for the Green Bridge and at least be allowed to vote on it through a referendum. Then they can decide whether they want the bridge restored or replaced.

 

The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles will be following the situation closely and keep you informed on the bridge’s future. In the meantime, have a look at the photos of the bridge by clicking here and you are free to decide how to repair the unique structure with a history that people want to keep.

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6 Responses to What to do with a Historic Bridge: Fifth Street Pedestrian Bridge in Des Moines

  1. P Rex Coble says:

    Thank you Jason, for an informative article. Should help everyone decide their position.

  2. Paula Feltner says:

    It bothers me that the city would pay to remodel the bridge, encourage the Meredith family to build a trail to it, showcase it as a wonderful link between two /great city trails (the Grays Lake Trail and the Principal River Walk, and then just decide to take it out, despite the fact that it is old and has historical significance to our city. How many old structures are unable to be retrofitted to be part of our new skyline — this one has been a wonderful retrofit — instead of building new things we need to take care of the things we have. At the appropriate time, I hope those of you who have enjoyed using and seeing the Jackson Street Bridge will make your opinions known to the city council. They need to know how much people like and appreciate our trail system, the old AND new aspects. Iowa has very little public land for recreation and the trails/bridges are critical to our quality of life. Also, as the near south side develops, it would be nice to save that part of the area’s history.

  3. Kathy Colegrove says:

    I grew up in the neighborhood when it was Little Italy . So many great memories from that bridge. My family members and friends use to walk over it to go downtown years ago and ride our bikes over it. It would be an awful shame to get tear it down. It was the crossroad to Little Italy and for many citizens to shop at Graziano’s .. The city needs to maintain the original bridges because it’s a part of who we all are.

  4. hank kelly says:

    Love your site. Yes, I hope the Jackson St Bridge can be saved. These old bridges help to make Des Moines a little extra special.

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