Mystery Bridge Nr. 3: The Bridges that came from California

Author’s Note: The next two historic bridge entries deal with the bridges in Harrison County, Iowa. While the county has one of the highest number of historic bridges in the state, the uniqueness of it is the fact that a third of them were brought in from out of state in the late 1940s. Why and how are explained below.

Kelly Lane Bridge This and the following photos courtesy of Craig Guttau, used with permission


There are a number of physical and historic features that make Harrison County, Iowa a special place to visit. With the county seat located in Logan (just off US Hwy. 30, the Lincoln Highway), the county presents a day and night feature when it comes to topography. It is one of the hilliest in the state, competing with Winneshiek, Allamakee, and Clayton Counties, thanks to the area near Pisgah known as Loess Hills, which is today a state park. The area used to be a Mormon settlement in the area now known as Preparation Canyon State Park, created by Charles Thompson in 1853. It was short lived and the settlers eventually trekked west to Utah.  Looking to the south and the west of Loess Hills, one can see the flat lands as far as the eye can see. Compared to the altitude of Loess Hills at 430 meters above sea level, the flat plains, at 320 meters above sea level, is one of the flattest areas in Iowa and is part of the Missouri River basin, which starts at Sioux City and flows south towards Kansas City. At least 13 of Iowa’s 91 are located in this deep valley that is rich in farm land, but sadly beset by massive floods. The last time this area was flooded was last year, as the late spring thaw combined with heavy rains turned the Missouri River into the Red Sea, causing billions of dollars in damage and crop loss, and damaging or destroying hundreds of bridges on both sides of the river. It even closed down Interstate 29 from Kansas City to Omaha, forcing a detour through Des Moines along I-35 and I-80, respectively.

Photos courtesy of James MacCray. This one is most recent; taken in 2013 at the time of its closure

Yet the 2011 floods were not the worst of it. According to Michael Finn, who wrote about bowstring arch bridges in Iowa in 2004, the floods of 1946 destroyed almost every single river crossing in the valley in its path, including those along the Soldier, Willow, Nishnabota, Boyer and Little Sioux Rivers. That combined with the scarcity of raw materials, such as steel, and the dire state of the economy as a result of World War II and  President Harry Truman’s attempts of containing Communism in Europe at the expense of money and manpower forced the entire area back into another Great Depression, and  county officials as well as the state had to consider cheap options. While bowstring arch bridges in Crawford County and Bailey truss bridges in Harrison County and other areas were used as they use less steel than other conventional truss bridges, the state also recycled its truss bridges, relocating them to the areas that are needed the most. The reason for this measure is simple: most of the bridges were built at the turn of the century and were still in good condition. They could be dismantled and transported to the new site to be reassembled and reused for vehicular traffic. Most of these bridges were built using steel, which is light weight, durable and flexible. The counterargument to relocating truss bridges was the fact that the information on the bridges was missing or sometimes thrown away, leaving a void to finding out where the structures originated from and who built them. This led to many structures not being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, making them prone to demolition.

Nelson (CSAH F-14) Bridge over Willow Creek west of Dunlap, Iowa. Photo taken by Craig Guttau

Harrison County is no stranger to bridge relocation, for at least eight bridges were imported from outside the county between 1946 and 1949. This included the Orr Bridge northeast of Missouri Valley, a Pennsylvania through truss bridge that was built in 1910 but was brought in from Kansas or Missouri. That bridge was removed in 2002. The same applies to the Gochenour Bridge over Willow River, a Pennsylvania through truss bridge that was also built in 1910 before being relocated to its present site, where it still sits to this day. But half of the bridges imported to Harrison County came from a four-span Pratt through truss bridge crossing. This is where the mystery begins.

Oblique view of the bridge during construction.

The four-span bridge features a Pratt through truss design with a three-rhombus Howe lattice portal bracings, whose origins were over the Santa Ynez River near Bakersfield, California. Built in 1918 at a cost of $181,230, the structure was 1369 feet long and was incorporated into US Highway 101, the main artery running along the coastal area, when the US Highway System was introduced in 1926. The Bakersfield Bridge carried the main highway until the increase in traffic because of an influx of people coming to California for work during the Great Depression and the second World War- and with that, the increase in cars- made the structure obsolete.

Transversal view of the bridge while under construction.

Instead of tearing the bridge down, they were simply dismantled and sold to Western Steel Cutting Company, who then sold the bridge to the Highway Bridge Company of Lincoln, Nebraska. They in turn sold the bridge to Harrison County in 1950 and each of the four 162-foot long truss spans were erected replacing earlier spans that fell to the floodwaters. The bridges were located on Jackson Street over Soldier River in Pisgah, on 340th Street over the Harrison-Monona Ditch near Little Sioux, over Willow River (as Nelson Bridge) southwest of Dunlap and the Kelly Lane Bridge over Soldier River near Mondamin. A couple examples of the Kelly Lane Bridge were provided by local Craig Guttau for the column so that one can see what the four bridges look like.

Side view of the Kelly Lane Bridge


Sadly however, the days of the original Bakersfield Bridge may be numbered very soon. The Jackson Street Bridge in Pisgah was replaced in 2004 as structural concerns justified its immediate replacement. The Monoma-Harrison Ditch Bridge collapsed due to flood waters last year and despite the potential to rebuild the structure on new foundations, the counties of Harrison and Monoma decided to remove the bridge in its entirety instead. Since April of this year the road leading to the bridge is a sackgasse.

Monoma-Harrison Ditch Bridge after the 2011 Flood. It was removed in 2013

The Kelly Lane Bridge, according to county engineer Tom Stoner, will be replaced next year, and the future of the Nelson Bridge is in doubt.

(Author’s Note: The bridge was indeed replaced in 2013, after this article was posted)

In the last decade, at least 15 of the county’s bridges have been removed or replaced without considering alternatives, such as reusing them for recreational purposes and further research on their history. Given the dire state of the roads and bridges in the area, the tend is clearly continuing to focus on abandoning roads and removing crossings in place of focusing on main highways that need the most attention. This includes US Hwy. 30, which slices through the county, running parallel to Union Pacific/Amtrak Railroad, which crisscrosses through Iowa connecting San Francisco and New York/Chicago.

This is not good news as some of the remaining bridges have the potential for becoming part of a bike trail for the towns in the county, let alone Loess Hills State Park. Only one Bailey Truss Bridge has been preserved at a county park according to Guttau, yet it does not mean that it can be the only span located there. As there are some historic bridge parks that exist in the US, including the F.W. Kent Park Complex in Iowa City and the Historic Bridge Park in Calhoun County, Michigan, Harrison County could have a park of its own, using the remaining historic bridges that are still in use but slated for replacement. This would allow for researchers to continue finding out more about the bridges imported from elsewhere, for although the records are sketchy, on the bridges imported in the county, there is still potential to find their origins.

This applies to the original Bakersfield Bridge, where two of the four relocated spans are remaining. Some of the questions pertaining to the bridge are the following:

Was there a bridge that was built prior to the Bakersfield Bridge in 1918?
Who built the structure in Bakersfield and where was the steel fabricated from?
What events occurred at the bridge?
What factors led to the replacement of the span?
How was the bridge transported from California to Nebraska before settling in Iowa?
Who was the local contractor for building the four Bakersfield truss spans in Harrison County?
What did the predecessing structures in Harrison County look like before 1945?

While inquiring about the bridge through research may help answer some of the questions, leaving the two remaining spans as they are without demolishing them, for display purposes, may be the only option left open to solving the mystery of the bridge’s trek to America’s heartland.

Source: Clay Fraser of Fraser Design

If you have some answers to these questions or have some stories to share about the Bakersfield Bridge or the four relocated spans in Harrison County, please send them to Jason Smith at  Looking forward to hearing about this interesting bridge story.

The author would like to thank Craig Guttau for the use of his photos for this piece.