Sabula-Savanna Bridge to be given away- any takers?

Side view of the Sabula-Savanna Bridge crossing the Mississippi River. Photo taken by Quinn Phelan in 2010.

Here is a question for many who are involved in marketing historic bridges: 1. What types of bridges have you marketed and sold, 2. How big were they, 3. Were they sold in chunks or in its entirety, 4. did you have to finance the relocation or did the parties do it themselves and 5. (most importantly), were there any takers?

From the point of view of the pontist and historian, the realistic answers for these questions are mainly truss bridges (mostly single span pony trusses) whose length did not exceed an average of 150 feet, although most multiple spans were sold in chunks, parties had to pay for the relocation and rehabilitation costs unless state and federal grants were available and finally, only 10% of the people were interested and actually took the bridge, even though another 40% were interested but did not have the financial resources to cover them. While some states, like Indiana, Texas, Iowa and Vermont have had more success than others, these statistics are alarming and also sobering, as mentioned by Eric Delony in a publication on the disappearance of historic bridges, published in 2003.

Which brings us to this case study involving the Sabula-Savanna Bridge. Spanning the Mississippi River and connecting the former in Jackson County, Iowa with the latter in Caroll County on the Illinois side, this half a mile long bridge was built in 1932 by the Minneapolis Bridge Company and features a Pratt through truss approach span and a cantilever through truss main span, all blue in color. The SaSa Bridge is unique because it represents one of the rarest examples of historic bridges built by the Minneapolis Bridge Company, one of a half dozen bridge building companies located in the largest city in Minnesota. While the Minneapolis bridge building empire dominated much of Minnesota and all areas to the west during the time span of 1880 and 1940, its influence was not as big in Iowa and Illinois thanks to their own set of bridge builders that existed during that time, like the Federal Bridge, Iowa Bridge, and Wickes Construction (all of Des Moines), the Clinton Bridge and Iron Company, the largest of the bridge builders in Iowa, and Illinois Steel, which built numerous bridges in Illinois and parts of Iowa.  Even more unique is the cantilever truss span, which features a K-truss design. K-trusses are different from other trusses, where two diagonal beams, which start at the same vertical beam on one side of the panel meet in the midle of the next vertical beam, creating a K-shaped truss. These trusses were developed in the late 1920s and became popular around the world, as K-truss bridges were built for railroad crossings in Europe. Here in the US, one can find a large quantity of K-trusses in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania but here in Iowa, only one bridge of this kind exists, which is this bridge.

The situation with the bridge is as follows: The Illinois Department of Transportation wants to replace this bridge with a modern one to accomodate more traffic passing through the region. Construction on the new bridge is set to begin in 2015 and upon completion in 2-3 years’ time, the old structure will be removed. However, the IDOT has decided to give the bridge away- for free! All 2,500 feet of the structure is yours if interested, except for one catch: you need to relocate the bridge and maintain its historic integrity in the process, while the DOT will pay for the costs to equal that of the demolition costs. Plus you are responsible for maintaining the bridge and the liability that goes along with that. Plus the bridge would have to be gone within 30 days of the opening of the bridge.  Still interested?

The offer has created an outcry among historians and pontists alike, which ranges from being “unrealistic” to “laughable.” One even mentioned that the costs of maintaining the bridge “forever” is ironic for IDOT has had a bad record of maintaining and preserving historic bridges in their state not counting the greater Chicago area. As mentioned in an earlier posting, the same agency is pursuing the demolition of relict bridges along US Hwy. 50 in order to expand the highway to four lanes. The opinion on the IDOT side has been indifferent as well as one person mentioned that no takers would be expected.

No takers means preparing the bridge’s obituary early then, is it not?

There are some questions though that will result in having the offer being revised at the convenience of other agencies working either at the same level or above the IDOT. Firstly, the SaSa Bridge is also owned by the State of Iowa, which has had an excellent record of preserving the remaining existing historic bridges in the state- mostly in an area east of the Des Moines River, with reports of many truss and arch bridges being relocated to parks and picnic areas for reuse and some being reused as part of the bike trail. Yet according to their website, there seems to be little or no cooperation with its next door neighbor, opening the door to ownership disputes.

Secondly, while environmental impact surveys are being carried out, there is no mentioning of Section 106 of the Historic Preservation Law, which focuses on alternatives to demolition and the documentation of the bridge prior to the project beginning. As the SaSa Bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the states are required to conduct the survey before construction starts.

And finally, as it is impractical to relocate a bridge of that size and mass, records have indicated that bridges like this were given to county authorities for use in their system as soon as the new highway bridge is in use. Many examples of such arrangements exist, among them, the St. Francisville Bridge over the Des Moines River at the Iowa-Misouri border. The cantilever Warren through truss bridge, built in 1927, was made obsolete by a freeway bridge, made to carry the Avenue of the Saints linking Mason City and St. Louis, and was subsequentially taken over by the counties of Lee (Iowa) and Clark (Missouri), which has maintained it as a street bridge ever since.

Keeping these arguments in mind, one has to ask himself whether this arrangement of giving the bridge away like IDOT is doing is both legal and practical or if there will be legal action to force the agency to revise its proposal to allow other parties to take over the bridge in its place, to use either for local traffic or part of the bike trail. Given the landscape of the Mississippi River valley and the counties affected by the bridge project, leaving the bridge in place and maintaining it “forever,” as IDOT stated in its offer just makes sense for everyone involved. The fortunate part is construction will not start for another two years, which means more meetings and other proposals will be brought forward before the project is finalized and the excavators can start digging for a new abutment for SaSa’s replacement. Story to be continued…..

More information and photos of the bridge can be found here, as well as in the words marked and underlined in the text.


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