The Bridges of Des Moines, Iowa Part I: Night bridge photo tour

Green Bridge at 5th Avenue Photo taken by Chris CJ Johnson

This bridge tour is the first of a three-part series that will focus on the bridges of Des Moines, Iowa, one of the main stops for this year’s Historic Bridge Weekend.

How many of you have a digital camera and enjoy taking photographs of places of interest at night? If you enjoy taking night photography as much as I do, what places have you gone to and spent extensive time taking some pics at night? And which objects are your favorite to photograph at night?

With the development of digital cameras and the invention of different ways to photograph places, the interest in taking night photographs has increased exponentially in the last decade for reasons that you can take as many pictures of places of interests from different angles, sort the pics out and take the best ones that you can take pride in. With the increase in interest in places of interests, many city designers have gone out of their way to light up the places of interest at night to encourage photographers to walk the streets at night and take some snaps digitally, as can be seen in a classic example with the city of Flensburg, Germany, where yours truly went wild over night photography in 2010 and 2011 and has an article with some samples to prove it. (click here to view the photos.)

The same applies to historic bridges as well, as many cities have accomodated pedestrians and cyclists with a set of lighting on the bridges not just for the purpose of safety but for the purpose of making them more attractive. This takes us to the city of Des Moines, Iowa’s state capital and one of our major stops during our historic bridge tour in August 2013. With a population of over 250,000 inhabitants (700,000 counting the metropolitan area, Saylorville region and Ankeny), the city has one of the highest densities of bridges in the Midwest, competing with Minneapolis-St. Paul, Sioux Falls, Quad Cities and even Chicago, just to name a few. A third of the bridges consists of those built in 1945 and earlier, but there are some substantial bridges that have been built with aesthetic appeal since 1990. And there are quite a few that are decorated with lighting, creating an “Aha-Effect” for people walking along the Des Moines or Raccoon Rivers, the two primary waterways serving the city.

Despite construction of a new floodwall along the river to prevent future flooding (the last ones occurring in 2010 and 2011) and one bridge closing due to structural concerns, we had an opportunity to tour some of the bridges in Des Moines and are providing you with a sneak peak of some of the bridges you can see while touring Des Moines, so that you can plan a future trip there and even take some pictures for yourself.

Jackson Street Bridge BH1
Fifth Avenue/ Jackson Street Pedestrian Bridge in Des Moines. Photo taken in August 2013
Jackson St. Bridge BH2
Side view of the Jackson Street Bridge.

Fifth Avenue Bridge over the Raccoon River: This 400-foot bridge can be seen easily from the 2nd Street Bridge, its replacement, with its white light illuminating on the color of lime green that covers the three-span Pratt through truss bridge. This bridge was built in 1898 by the King Bridge Company at the time the bridge building company was at its peak in its history. The portal bracing was later adopted by George E. King when he started his own business at the turn of the century. The bridge was converted to a bike trail crossing with a few benches for people to sit down. Yet sadly, the bridge has been closed to traffic since March of this year due to structural concerns. Still, one can  see the bridge lit up, providing an opportunity for many to pay homage to a piece of history. Hopefully the structural issues will be resolved so that it can be reopened again.

Meredith Bridge
Meredith Bike Trail Bridge


Meredith Bike Trail Bridge: Also known as the Water Street Bridge, this bridge represents a classic example of one of many deck arch bridges built in the 1930s (this one was built in 1937) that will be mentioned in Part II of the tour. Located over the Raccoon River at the confluence of the Des Moines River, the bridge serves the bike trail combs the west bank of the Des Moines River. City officials in 2006 allowed planners to convert a vehicular crossing into a park filled with vegetation and benches, allowing people to enjoy the view of Des Moines’ skyline, and pontists to spend time at that bridge as well as its adjacent Scott Avenue Bridge.  The bridge and its skyline can also be seen from Mullet’s restaurant, which is also located at the confluence and serves local specialties and fish entrées typical for the region.

Des Moines skyline
Des Moines skyline and Iowa Cubs baseball stadium. Taken from the Meredith Trail Bridge
Scott Avenue Bridge
Scott Avenue Bridge at sundown. Located adjacent to the Meredith Trail Bridge
MLK Bridge 4
Martin Luther King Bridge

Martin Luther King Bridge: Built in 2005 as part of the Parkway project honoring the civil rights activist, this crossing features two bridges, one for each direction of traffic, and blue lighting on the outer piers illuminating the Des Moines River. That combined with a row of white LED lighting gives the bridge a blue appearance. Though while work was going on at the bridge to raise the east bank, we were given a treat with this view of the arched piers reflecting off the bridge, reminding the author of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis.

red bridge
Red Bridge spanning the Des Moines River in Des Moines. Photo taken in August 2011
Red Bridge
Red Bridge


Red Bridge: Also known as the Norfolk and Western Bridge, this 500 foot long two span Pratt through truss bridge was built in 1891 and spans the Des Moines River. After the railroad abandoned its line and bridge in 1995, the city bought the bridge and integrated it into the Principal Walkway system in 2006, while giving the bridge a new deck, cherry red paint and mirror reflecting lights, giving the bridge a unique light red color that is appealing both day and night. Yet the bridge was not lit up during the visit in August and for a good reason: As part of the plan to raise the flood wall, the bridge will be raised by four feet to ensure that floodwaters pass through the city without incident. Already the decking was raised and it is expected that the truss spans will be raised by the middle of next year. Only afterwards will the bridge return to its original form, lit up for people to see again.

red bridge dm 2
Close-up of the Red Bridge and the decking already raised by four feet as part of the flood-prevention project.


Center Street Bridge 1
Center Street Bridge in Des Moines, Iowa (USA)

Center Street Pedestrian Bridge: This is the youngest and one of the fanciest of modern bridges in Des Moines. Built in 2010 as part of the 125th anniversary of the Principal Financial Group and the project to develop the bike trail, this steel through arch bridge features an arch suspended by still vertical cables, that serves as a divider for the decking designated for bike trail and pedestrian trail. From the air, the decking resembles a football. The bridge was shortlisted for the Bridge Engineering and Design 2011 Footbridge Awards. But it may be one of the bridges listed for this year’s Ammann Awards, not only because of its design but also because of its appearance at night. With the lighting illuminating the arch, which can be seen from I-235 and from the Red Bridge, it makes a perfect picture if taken with the skyline in the background, as shown above. Yet the dark side is the fact that the bridge may be the least safe of the bridges for it is a meeting place for gangs and violence. So when at the bridge at night, please take extra precaution to ensure your’re safe.

bot garden bridge
Botanical Garden Tied Arch Bridge

I-235 Tied Basket Handle Arch Bridges: The last stop on the night tour are the I-235 Tied Arch Bridges. Built in 2005 as part of the project to widen and improve the interstate through the city center, one will not miss the three blue and white-colored tied arch bridges located within a distance of three miles of each other. This is especially the case at nightfall when they are lit, providing a stark contrast to the yellow sodium street lamps that line up along the interestate.  The arch bridges are located as follows, driving westward:

Edna Griffin Memorial: between 6th Street exit (access avaiable there only) and the Des Moines River. Perfect site for a photo with the skyline in the background.

Center Street: east of 42nd Street exit. Access either at Center Street (south of I-235) or Rollins Avenue/ 40th Place (north of I-235)

Rider Way: West of 42nd Street exit. Access through Center Street at Roosevelt High School.

Rider Park B
Rider Park Bridge


If one has to sum up the night tour of the bridges in Des Moines in one word, it would be awesome. Each bridge has its own character which is illuminated quite clearly at night when driving past, making the driver spend some time at the structure taking some pictures. While it may take 2-3 hours to complete the tour, counting the walking in, it is one of the activities that one should take advantage of when visiting the city.

Yet the night tour is only a fraction of what a person can see for bridges in the state capital. When we go to part II of the tour of Des Moines’ bridges, we’ll take a look at the other historic bridges that are a must-see, namely the ones built of concrete and steel, namely, arch and truss bridges.

Author’s Note: More information on the bridges can be found by clicking on the underlined words, which will take you to your respective sites.

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