Oakland Mills Bridge to Close because of Neglect: A wake-up call to better protect historic bridges?

Oblique view of the bridge from the south bank of the river

Vandalism: a way to express oneself or a way to show a towards the places we have? Vandalism, regardless of form- spray-painting, breaking windows of buildings, intentionally crashing into historic buildings, stealing artifacts from historic monuments- has taken new forms over the past five years, as many people- frustrated by the circumstances that have put them at a disadvantage- are venting out their anger in the newest but ugliest form. In the case of historic bridges, this includes some of the wildest and yet most creative stories ever imagined, from vandalizing a bridge in order for it to be eligible for replacement funds (as was the case with the Little River Truss Bridge in Seminole County, Oklahoma) to a group of people stealing a 50 foot steel bridge near New Castle, Pennsylvania, and selling it for scrap metal. Even an ignorant person crossing a bridge despite weight and height restrictions and causing damage or forcing its collapse into the river counts as defacing property. Unfortunately, the rage caused by hatred, anger over a topic, ignorance, or simple stupidity always comes at a price, as historic bridges, damaged by vandalism are closed to traffic, denying the passers-by with an opportunity to see the structure up close and personal. In the worst-case scenario, these bridges are replaced with modern structures, costing tax-payers hundreds of thousands of dollars, which they do not even have, given the economic situation the US (and other countries) are still facing. Unfortunately, with law enforcement at an all-time low because of budget cuts, more and more people are trying their best to inflict damage wherever possible and get away with it, even though if caught, they are obliged to pay for damages or face jail time.

Close-up of the original portal bracing

The Oakland Mills Bridge near Mount Pleasant in Henry County, Iowa, is a classic example of a bridge that has been a target of vandalism and disrepair for the longest time- to a point where local authorities are considering closing the bridge over Skunk River at the earliest possible convenience. Built in 1876 by the Missouri Valley Bridge and Iron Company of Leavenworth, Kansas under the supervision of John Schreiner, this multiple span crossing was unique because of its design and history, making it part of the National Register of Historic Places. The 358 foot long bridge comprises of two spans of Pratt through truss bridges (each being 7 panels), two Howe pony truss spans (one on each end of the bridge) and wooden trestles connecting the through truss spans and the northern pony truss span. The portal bracings have a unique ornamental design featuring a curved heel bracing with a circular design in the inside, supported by rain-drop-like curves, with a series of ornamental curves on the inside of the circular design. Sadly, the southernmost portal bracing is the only one that features that unique design, while the others feature dull 45° heel portals that were replaced in the last 30 years (at least).

Make-shift portal bracings

The Oakland Mills Bridge was one of the first bridges to be built in Iowa, using a Pratt through truss design that superseded the bowstring arch bridge beginning in the 1880s. The bowstring arch bridge was common for bridge building in the 1870s and 80s, but they had one flaw, which was the fact that disassembling, transporting and reassembling the structure was difficult because of the upper chord being an arch design. With Pratt trusses, and in particular, pin-connected trusses, the bridge can be taken apart, piece by piece, before being transported from one place to another and being reassembled again. Pin-connected trusses were later replaced with those with riveted connections- meaning the parts are supported by gusset plates- as they were sturdier and more weather-resistant. The bridge builder, the Missouri Valley Bridge and Iron Works Company, dominated the southern part of Iowa with bridges, before the turn of the century when bridge builders in Iowa, like the Clinton Bridge and Iron Works Company and George King took over the scene in bridge building.

Upon visiting the bridge during my trip through Iowa and Missouri in 2011, I saw that the bridge was in dire need of a face-lift. Since its conversion into pedestrian use and its incorporation into the Oakland Mills State Park in the 1970s, the structural integrity and stability of the bridge has fallen into a steady decline. Here are some examples of the dire state of the historic bridge from the photographer/columnist’s point of view:

Make-shift railings that were built towards the center of the bridge to protect the original railings from vandalism. If the original railings were still in place, they were victim of neglect and vandalism. Some of the railings that replaced the original railings about three decades ago have already seen signs of wood decay and and dry rot. With the make-shift railings in place, the width of the bridge decreased by 1/3 from 18 feet to 12 feet, making passage on the bridge only possible through foot.

Deck view with the make-shift and some outer fencing

The decking of the bridge is poor and should be replaced in its entirety. Regardless of age, the flooring has taken quite a beating due to floods, weather extremities and some attempts of vandalism. If the decking was put into place 30 years ago, they resemble a decking that was on the bridge at the time of its completion, and no wood can last that long without having some protection on it (like varnish)

Make-shift lean-to shelters on the through truss spans

The picnic area is laughable in comparison to even some of the historic bridges with better picnic areas. In a photo taken for a magazine in the early 1980s, the Oakland Mills area had two picnic areas on the through truss spans- one per span- that each had a parasol, used to keep out the sun and the rain. Sadly these disappeared in favor of make-shift lean-tos that are tied to the vertical beams of the truss span. It is unknown how long they have been there, but this primitive contraption is an eyesore to people crossing the bridge and since they are tied to the truss structure, they are not doing the superstructure any favors regarding the tension applied to the vertical beams.

Pin-connections with signs of discoloration on the truss itself

Apart from the missing portal bracings, which matches the damage done to the portal bracings of the Mead Avenue Bridge in Pennsylvania (which is closed to traffic and in imminent danger of being removed if no one comes to its rescue), much of the truss structure is rusted with some parts in need of replacement. While preserving the bridge in its place is of utmost importance, which the county did a good job of doing, maintaining the superstructure using paint and other rust protectant is just as important.

North approach with trestle spans and northernmost pony truss span

While I did not see this on my visit, reports from the local newspaper indicated that the trestle span portion of the bridge was decaying because of rotting wood on the columns. While it appeared that there was no sagging or swaying, in the long term, it could potentially undermine the portion of the span. Interesting enough, this portion of the span was introduced as a replacement to the third (and longest) through truss span destroyed in an accident in the 1940s.
Lighting is lacking for the structure. While the truss spans are lighted with LED, it is not enough to light up the structure in its entirety, thus leading to safety hazards and potential liability issues.

Keeping these facts in mind, what is there to do with the bridge? As a general reaction among the owners of a historic bridge, the first priority is to demolish the bridge and replace it with a mail-order-bridge, consisting of welded trusses that represent little or no aesthetic value. Yet given the fact that the bridge is one of the oldest remaining structures of its type left in Iowa, and its history and design makes it part of the National Park Service through the National Register of Historic Places, there are ways to rehabilitate the bridge and reuse it again for recreational purposes. If asked how to rehabilitate the bridge, the following suggestions would be made:

1. The whole super structure needs to be rehabilitated, but in certain sections. That means the two through truss spans would represent one section and the pony trusses as another section. These sections would have to be taken apart by spans and relocated to neutral sites so that they can be rehabilitated individually.
2. The through truss spans will have to be disassembled with parts being sandblasted and replaced. This has been accomplished with many through truss bridges in the United States; most notably the truss bridges at Historic Bridge Park in Michigan, the Zoarville Station Bridge in Ohio, and the latest example, the Piano Bridge in Texas. However, the make-shift portal bracings need to be replaced with the original portal bracing that is remaining on the southern span of the through truss bridge. Making replicas of them is time and money-consuming but doable.
3. The trestle spans will have to be replaced in its entirety with those replicating the original span but made of treated wood. An alternative to that would be to include more pony truss spans imported from outside Mt. Pleasant, but that may compromise the historic integrity of the bridge. Regardless of the guidelines set out by the National Register of Historic Places, adding these truss spans may present a better appearance to the bridge as a whole in comparison with what the bridge features right now.
4. The piers supporting the two truss spans will need to be rehabilitated. Age and weather has taken its toll on the stone piers as cracks are starting to appear and spall, and moss is growing on them, which has the potential to weaken the piers even further.
5. More lighting is needed on the bridge. While LEDs presents a makeshift appearance to the bridge, better is to install street lamps on the bridge, and even further, have lighting from the shore shine onto the structure at night to make it more attractive.
6. The entire trusses will need to be painted to protect the trusses from further rust and corrosion caused by weather extremities and flooding. This will need to be done through sandblasting the old paint off the affected truss parts and painting it with a color that would fit the environmental surroundings. In my opinion, a mahogany or dark red color will suffice.
7. New decking is needed for the entire truss span. This can be done by using treated timber or concrete, as long as the rehabilitated bridge can hold it. In addition, as cyclists use the bridge frequently, the decking should be divided up into two lanes- one for bikes and one for pedestrians and benches. Another option would be to reintroduce the picnic areas on the through truss spans (meaning shelters with parasols and picnic tables), but the cyclists would be required to walk their bikes across the river for safety purposes.
8. Finally, video surveillance and police patrols will be needed on the bridge to ensure that vandalism is avoided. Should a vandal be caught, fines and possible imprisonment should be enforced to set an example for others considering doing damage to the bridge.

The cost for such a project will be big- ca. $1-2 million for the entire rehabilitation alone and another $500,000 for the extra features. However, these costs are nothing in comparison to replacing a bridge with a new structure, which is an average of $4-6 million. Even removing the entire structure alone is more expensive than rehabilitation. But the actual costs will be evaluated in the near future, as a couple interested groups are inquiring about the bridge and are planning to do a cost estimation for bridge rehabilitation and later designating places to disassemble and work on the bridge, before the project can actually begin. Whether these aforementioned suggestions will be considered depends on the opinions of the other parties interested in the bridge. The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles will keep you posted on the developments on this situation and the plans for the Oakland Mills Bridge.

Reflections of the bridge at dusk with LED lighting seen on the northern through truss span

To close this column, there is a word of advice to be given to people who are working to save historic bridges, based on experience seen with these structures in the past. Some parties have fought to save a historic bridge just by leaving it open for pedestrians and cyclists only for as long as possible and hope that the issue is tabled. This is not enough, as maintaining the historic bridge takes on just as big of importance as converting the bridge into pedestrian use. In many cases, historic bridge rehabilitation is needed to ensure that the structure can support pedestrians and cyclists as long as it did, when automobiles used the bridge- meaning in the case of bridges like the Oakland Mills Bridge, 100-130 years. Some groups leave the bridge in place in order to pursue funding options, as is the case with the Riverside Bridge in Missouri. But for liability reasons, they are closed to traffic and fenced off. In either case, bridges left neglected and prone to vandalism can collapse under their own weight in the long run. This happened recently with the Columbia and Schell City Bridges in Missouri- the former collapsing because of flooding and the latter collapsing under its own weight.  If there is a historic bridge that is targeted for replacement and a party is interested in preserving it, that party must consider the state of the bridge and look at the options for bridge rehabilitation and converting it into recreational use both for safety and liability purposes, as well as for the interest of the tourists interested in the bridges. Leaving a historic bridge open and giving it a “window dressing” as it was the case with the Oakland Mills Bridge, without considering the option of rehabilitation, just does not cut it, for in the long term, weather extremities, flooding and potential vandalism will make the bridge more dangerous to cross, forcing authorities to close and later remove the structure. Rehabilitating the structure and remodeling it to make it appearance for passers-by has become the most viable choice for preserving the historic bridge. Maintaining the historic bridge is just as important to ensure that the structure fulfills its purpose as a recreational bridge that is appealing to everyone.

The Oakland Mills Bridge represent a classic example of a bridge whose neglect and vandalism has put it in danger of being closed and possibly removed, despite its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Perhaps this bridge will represent a warning signal for other historic bridges, implicating that in order to save a bridge, it has to be remodeled for recreational purposes and maintained for safety purposes in order to prevent it from being degraded.
A couple Iowa historic bridges that are closed to traffic, the Cascade Bridge in Burlington and the Wagon Wheel Bridge west of Boone, are currently targets of debates between replacing them with modern slab bridges and rehabilitating them for recreational reuse. Both are listed on the National Register and have been documented by the Historic American Engineering Record. Perhaps the proponents and opponents of historic bridge preservation should consider the pros and cons to bridge preservation in comparison to bridge replacement before any decision is made on their future as well.  This applies to other historic bridges in the United States as well…

Note: The Columbia Bridge in Franklin County, built by the Columbia Bridge Works of Dayton, Ohio in 1880, was closed to traffic in 1980 and was left abandoned until it collapsed in early 2010. The truss was sold for scrap. The Schell City Bridge in Vernon County, built in 1900 by the Canton Bridge Company,  was closed to traffic a few years ago despite attempts to shore the abutments with parts from an old truss bridge. The pony truss span collapsed in 2010. The Parker through truss span followed in February of this year.

5 thoughts on “Oakland Mills Bridge to Close because of Neglect: A wake-up call to better protect historic bridges?

  1. The Piano bridge in Texas is an example of a bridge that has generated many dollars of revenue to the local communities as a tourist destination. It is near a main highway and a short drive from Austin or San Antonio, as well as being an historic through truss design and builder. It is wonderful that she has been restored, but without already being a revenue generator in a great location, it probably would have been left to rot like many of her historic sister bridges in South Texas. Unfortunately, the driving motivator for government is short term greed not historic or cultural significance. Modern conservative government sees no value whatsoever to people, structures or places that do not immediately enrich. The pattern of neglect is intentional, the excuse is the budget. Prevent routine maintenance until it becomes unsafe, or the cost of repairing the damage from lack of maintenance compounds until you have the excuse that it is too expensive to do anything but abandon it. Human life is only valuable if it generates wealth as well. There is no argument that highway rest stops save lives, but they do not generate positive cash flow, so the Arizona government has closed almost all of them (13) for “budget” reasons. How many injuries and deaths have been the direct result of this? How many highway fatalities have re-tread truck tires caused when they fly apart and cause crashes from drivers avoiding debris. The $300 per tire saved is considered as more important than the value of life(s) that are impacted. How do you explain the significance of the history of truss design to a government that thinks that $300 profit justifies injuries and deaths of its citizens that could have been avoided? It seems that the only method of convincing government to restore and maintain these precious historic bridges is to “feed the greed” by representing them as moneymakers. If it does not generate revenue, it is worthless in their eyes. Bridgehunting Texas will continue to locate, photograph and archive our historic bridges here, because they are critical to our history. The rail lines and roadways that made our country great and brought us to where we are today were ONLY MADE POSSIBLE because of the development of these historic truss and suspension bridges.


  2. Jason,

    I didn’t concur with your conclusions vis-a-vis Oakland Mills Bridge.
    a) they brought those “make-shift rails” in to the middle of the bridge to save the load underneath where the pole-pilings support the trestle, thereby keeping the bridge open to pedestrians.
    b) I bet those shade panels come in handy on a hot Iowa afternoon.
    c) The planks might have been oiled or varnished but there were no big holes.
    d) I didn’t see signs of vandalism.
    e) The CCB keeps a pretty good park there and the bridge is part of that. I think they are quite proud of her and the fact that they did this quite early on for “bridge preservation”.
    f) educating the engineers about options for SHPO and historic truss bridges is our goal at Workin’ Bridges.

    We are giving them some ideas. The negativity of this article is probably not going to help. It is time to move forward here in Iowa, one bridge at a time.

    Regarding the Piano Bridge, it had a lot to do with the County Judge and the neighbors wanting this bridge back open, and the fact that it fit with the criteria TxDOT uses for determining the fate. I am busy editing the Piano Bridge Restoration movie which should explain more about how this project really came to be. Again, just saying.

    Just my very humble opinion.



    1. Julie,
      I can see some of your points there with regard to the bridge. I’m not saying that the structure of the bridge is poor per say but I had the impression that the bridge may have seen its better days when all of its portal bracings were in tact and not missing like I saw while on my trip there and that there were picnic areas supported by parasols (as seen in some of the older photos), which made it more attractive than it appears right now. What puzzles me is that the original railings were missing and replaced with wire fencing, which gave me the impression that it was either missing because of theft or it was removed because of vandalism. In simpler languages, there is room for improvement with this bridge if there is any hope that the bridge will continue its use as a recreational bridge. Now some ideas mentioned in the article are actually being considered (like bringing in a through truss bridge to replace the trestle span), but more will need to be done, like constructing replica portal bracings to match the one on southern most span, adding more lighting, and giving the bridge a good paint-job. My intention is not to discourage preservation but to encourage bridge preservation but in a way that everyone will still enjoy the bridge for generations to come. This is one bridge where it will take plenty of time and efforts to rehabilitate, but one that is workable. I hope this will clear up any misunderstandings and that the article is only based on my observations and I’m therefore offering some suggestions for improving the bridge.


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