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Moving a Community to Move a Bridge in Iowa 

10-01-2009 00:00

Go here to view a video of the bridge move.

When she first got the call from the Iowa State Historic Preservation Office asking her to try to save a historic bridge scheduled to be demolished within months, Rose Rohr, chairperson of the Jones County, Iowa, Historic Preservation Commission, recalls: “I laughed.”
But she didn’t say “no.” And for six-and-half years, the project became a consuming passion for her and a small but determined team of advocates.

The Hale Bridge is a National Register–listed three-span wrought-iron bridge built in 1879 to traverse the Wapsipinicon River at Hale, Iowa. It is a rare surviving example of the once widely used bowstring arch bridge form, and the longest remaining bowstring bridge in Iowa. The bridge was damaged by flooding in 1993, closed to traffic in 1997, and scheduled to be replaced by a wider bridge, to better accommodate farm machinery.

Essential Partnerships

To save and move the bridge, Rohr needed supporters and helpers within the numerous government agencies that would be involved. Her first local champion was one of the county supervisors, then another newly elected supervisor. They worked together to try to locate temporary storage places for the three bridge spans. After contacting several organizations, they got the Jones County Conservation Board to join the project and the two supervisors found landowners willing to store the spans. In February 2003, the three spans were delicately lifted off their piers by cables and trucked to two farm properties on either side of the river where they would undergo restoration work.

The coalition of support grew. The two county supervisors got another behind the project. A committee that met regularly to iron out details, in Jones County, in Ames, and in the state capital Des Moines, eventually included Rohr and the two supervisors plus representatives from the Jones County Conservation Board, SHPO, Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Iowa Department of Transportation, Iowa Division of the Federal Highway Administration, and Iowa Resource Conservation and Development’s Limestone Bluffs Office, as well as a specially hired structural engineer. The scope of the project, and the inter-agency cooperation needed to pull it off, were unprecedented for the small, rural county.

A flurry of grant writing raised $445,000—including a Transportation Enhancement grant and funding from state and local sources. But estimates of needed work came in much higher. So the committee reviewed costs line by line, looking for cuts. For example, lead paint removal and related treatment had been estimated to cost some $100,000. Rohr called a friend for a favor, and he agreed to do the work for under $50,000. (“You need to find contractors who care about preservation,” she says.)

A team from the planning committee made visits around the county to find a suitable site for the bridge. Ultimately they chose Wapsipinicon State Park in Anamosa, some 15 miles upstream from the original location. Then the DNR worked with a landowner to purchase the land—another complex process.

With the challenges of meeting the requirements of every agency involved, including some unexpected ones, Rohr felt she had to be available 24/7. For example, in the dead of winter, the committee learned that a survey was required to determine if the bridge move would impact an endangered species of mussel. On short notice, a specialist made time, on a rare warm day when the river wasn’t frozen, to conduct the study. The site passed.

Of course, the biggest practical challenge was figuring out how to move the bridge to its new home. Trucks were rejected because local roads are too winding; floating it down the river was not practical or cost effective. The only hope was flying. So Rohr called on the Iowa Army National Guard.

At first the National Guard rejected the request, based on faulty information provided earlier by county officials. “But when you have stumbling blocks, you just have to figure out a way around them, and that’s what we did,” Rohr says. One project supporter, a state representative, was the nephew of a National Guard colonel; he helped set up the initial contact with his uncle.

The committee drove to Mt. Joy over an hour away from Jones County, and showed up in force to appeal for help. (“We went through the hangars and saw the helicopters that just came back from the war, and here we were asking for such a tremendous favor. It was a humbling experience,” Rohr recalls.) The National Guard leaders agreed to use helicopters to move the bridge as a training exercise as long as the weight was within the lifting limits. It was, just barely. She later learned that “what impressed the National Guard, and helped them decide to do the project, was that we had so many people representing so many different organizations behind it.”

More meetings and visits to the bridge followed to work out the exacting technical challenges of the move.

Throughout the project, Rohr had courted media coverage, and, with it, local interest grew. Businesses, service clubs, and organizations provided materials and volunteers. The Anamosa Penitentiary donated labor for concrete work and fencing; new piers and abutments were built using stone donated by a local quarry.

Moving Day

On March 8, 2006, over three hours, National Guard soldiers in two Chinook helicopters lifted and flew the three spans to their new location. The National Guard also provided a Blackhawk helicopter to hold film crews from Iowa Public Television and the History Channel program Mega Movers, as well as others documenting the event.

Hundreds of local citizens gathered to watch the move. Schoolchildren were bussed in, and high school volunteers helped with videotaping and other tasks. Government officials, including representatives from all the agencies involved, came to witness the event and speak at the celebration afterward. The great-grandson of the owner of the company that had built the bridge was a special guest.

Now serving as a pedestrian walkway along a recreational trail, the Hale Bridge was re-listed in the National Register in June 2008. The bridge can also be used for weddings and celebrations. The Jones County Historic Preservation Commission along with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources host an annual fundraising event called “Evening on the Bridge,” featuring a catered dinner and live classical music, to raise money for historical and cultural projects in the region.

Building Relationships, Building Credibility

What advice would Rohr give to others who must rally government and community support for a complex project? “So much of what you do in preservation is building relationships,” she says. “And the other thing is building credibility.”

At the beginning, only one of the five county supervisors supported the project. Rohr spoke with the others regularly, outside of meetings—on the phone and in their offices and homes—“keeping them informed so they would know what we were doing, why we were doing it. Basically, you’re trying to give them the vision that you have.

“Some of them just couldn’t see it. They’d ask, ‘What are we going to do with this? Isn’t that a waste of taxpayers money?’

“You really had to listen,” she says. “If people were negative about what you were doing, you had to listen to why, and figure out how to change that negative into a positive. You had to be considerate of others, but also tough when needed. And more than anything, you had to do your homework. Only give facts. If you don’t know something, say ‘I don’t know, but I’ll be back with an answer.’”

She also built community support by giving presentations to local organizations such as Rotary Clubs, and “talking to the same people the supervisors talk to, the residents.”

“It took time, but eventually I got all of the county supervisors on board with us,” she says.

“It was all about building partnerships—getting other people invested so they felt like they were a part of this. One of my most rewarding experiences was when I overheard someone at a convenience store talking about ‘his’ bridge and all the work he’d done on it. That’s what you need! It’s not about glory for yourself; it’s about getting other people to care so much that it becomes theirs.”

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Author(s):Kerri Rubman