The Bridge to Nowhere? The Sutliff Bridge Story

View from the tavern- a lonesome blick since 2008 Photo taken in September, 2010

Travelling through the rolling hills of southeastern Iowa with another pontist living in the region during the late summer of this year, we came up to this bridge and were taken by surprise at the artwork mother nature did to it. On the one hand, the great flood of 2008 amputated the eastern most span towards the nearby tavern, breaking the hearts of many who grew up at the bridge and saw how the raging waters of the Cedar River, slowly and in a torturous way, removed a piece of history during the morning hours of the 13th of June, 2008. The wreckage was later found over 500 feet down stream and removed from the river. On the other hand, the river, which eventually engulfed Cedar Rapids and took out another historic bridge in there, converted the bridge into a gift for Sarah Palin, as what was left of the three span truss bridge with a long wooden trestle approach,  were  only two truss spans and that was it. Apart from the eastern span, the entire western approach to the remaining truss spans was also wiped out, making the bridge look like that “Bridge to Nowhere” the former Alaska governor and 2008 Vice Presidential candidate had been touting- before killing it in an attempt to support John McCain and his campaign to eliminate “pork barrel” politics. If Ms. Palin wanted a “Bridge to Nowhere,” this would be the place to go- at least as long as it will remain like that.

Yes, the bridge that got indirectly received the name “Bridge to Nowhere” is the Sutliff Bridge, located in northeastern Johnson County in eastern Iowa. Going beyond the name, the three-span Parker through truss bridge with a 3-rhombus Lattice portal bracings (with subdivided 45° heel bracings) and a long trestle approach on the western end, has received a lot of national (and now international) attention, as despite the arguments being presented intensively on both sides, the dream of rebuilding the bridge has now come true. To break down this story, the article will describe the history of the bridge beginning with when it was built, how the community of Sutliff joined forces to save the bridge twice and what the plan is now for rebuilding the 825 foot long structure.

First and foremost, the name Sutliff Bridge is derived not only from the village of Sutliff, which was a ferry town at the time of its construction, but it was named after the founder of the village, Allen Sutliff. Mr. Sutliff had established a ferry service in 1838 but after almost 60 years, sandbars formed after years of transporting people and horses across the wide Cedar River making the function of this service obsolete. Henceforth, the citizens of Sutliff successfully petitioned to the Johnson County supervisors for a permanent structure across the river, which was granted in December 1896. The contract was awarded to J.R. Sheely and Co. of Des Moines and a local engineer G.W. Wynn of Iowa City for $12,000 to construct the collosial structure. When it was completed in April 1898, the bridge, whose Parker through truss spans were 214 feet each, was the longest of its kind in the state of Iowa.  86 years later, citizens rallied behind the bridge by creating the Sutliff Bridge Authority and buying the bridge from Johnson County, which had planned to demolish the truss structure as soon as its replacement bridge was open to traffic. The bridge was converted to pedestrian use and was an icon to the small village, let alone to the region. Weddings were performed on the bridge, cookouts and other events brought families and friends to this unique structure. This was until that tragic day on 13 June 2008.

Now the community, Johnson County, the state historical society and people associated with the Sutliff Bridge are coming together once again to relive the experience of walking across this unique collosial structure- by rebuilding the bridge and opening it to pedestrian traffic again. Already, despite the opposition by many who claimed that the bridge was lost and spending the money to rebuild “the Bridge to Nowhere” would be a waste compared to Palin’s campaign to build that bridge to the airport on the island during her tenure as Alaska governor, two major hurdles were made. First the engineering surveys done on the two structures standing revealed that they were structurally sound for reuse. Secondly, the majority of voters as well as the county commissioners in April 2010 voted to spend approximately $2 million to rebuild the bridge. The reconstruction plan consist of rebuilding the eastern span exactly the way it looked like before it ended up in the Cedar, except pin-connections will be replaced with riveted connections using gusset plates. Furthermore, the trestle approach and the flooring system on the two standing structures will also be reconstructed. Construction is set to begin in the spring of 2011 and is expected to be completed in 2013.  The contractor responsible for the job is another Iowa City company, VJ Construction, which has been working with other agencies in reconstructing and repairing infrastructures and buildings affected by the 2008 Flood.

At the same time, fund raising drives and events will still continue as it has garnered support from over the country. There are many ways to donate to the Sutliff Bridge Authority to help with the rebuilding and maintenance of the bridge. First and foremost merchandise on the bridge can be bought at the Sutliff Bridge (Baxa’s) Tavern, which is located just east of the bridge. One can also purchase a plank for the bridge with your name on it, if you donate more than $60. One can also give to an endowment with the Community Foundation of Johnson County, which has been working together with the Bridge Authority regarding finding financial resources to realize the reconstruction plan. Other ways to donate can be done through contacting the Sutliff Bridge Authority directly. The link is enclosed.

After photographing the bridge, we decided to grab some food at the tavern and I found yet another alternative to donating: decorating the ceiling with a dollar bill to help with the cause. Realizing I was short-changed in terms of cash in possession, I added my mark in hopes that the tiniest contribution will help the cause. However, this donation was for my little daughter as I hope someday when the bridge is rebuilt and reopened to pedestrians that we can walk across it together and perhaps have a picnic on one of the spans, overlooking the Cedar River and the village of Sutliff, and under a blue sky with a cool breeze. This would be my unique father-daughter gathering. But others probably have the same idea as I do and are waiting just as anxiously as I am for the bridge to open so that we can do it. It’s just a question of taking out our wallets and making a difference for the right cause. I know this will not be my last time visiting the bridge and to those at the Sutliff Authority, it will not be the last time you receive my support for the project, as you made all this happen because we want it to happen. And we plan to contribute further so that the reopening of the bridge will be realized soon.

Photos of the Sutliff Bridge can be seen by clicking here.

Useful links:

Photos of the Sutliff Bridge collapse can be found here:

Information on the bridge and more pictures by Jason D. Smith can be found here: