Mystery Bridge Nr. 50: A small culvert on a big major highway

Photo courtesy of the Jefferson Highway Archives/ Facebook Page

Culvert: a tunnel-like structure that passes underneath the road, providing a channel for water to flow through. Culverts were first used in the early 1910s as a substitute to beam or even (pony) truss bridges as they were cheap to build, they controlled the flow of water- keeping it from eroding the banks, and they were shorter than the short-span crossings. A culvert has an average length of 20-40 feet; the same applies to the width.  And while they are becoming the norm for small stream crossings, county engineers are using multiple spans as a replacement for a simple bridge span, as was seen with the Miller Station Bridge in western Pennsylvania, three years ago. Although the cost-cutting mentality has forced many to resort to this use, the lone setback is when water backs up on higher ground, thus causing flooding and frustration among farmers and property owners.

But this 50th mystery bridge in the series takes us to this culvert, spanning a stream carrying 585th Avenue between Shipley and Cambridge, in Story County, Iowa. Now many readers are probably wondering why this rather simple culvert is being used as an article. There are two key ones:

1. The road, which is now gravel and owned by the county, used to carry the Jefferson Highway, the second oldest highway in the United States. The highway started in Winnepeg, Manitoba (Canada), and after passing through Fargo, Minneapolis, Albert Lea, Des Moines, Kansas City and parts of Oklahoma and Arkansas, terminated in New Orleans. Although created in 1915, the highway was finalized in 1918 and was the primary north-south highway for four decades, before vast portions were replaced by Interstate highways. Many roads that were part of the highway, including this one, are still marked with the historic sign to this day, indicating where the highway once ran. Known as the Palm to Pine Highway because of the different trees one can find on the highway, the Jefferson intersects with the Lincoln Highway at Colo, Iowa, the oldest highway in the country and one that criss-crosses the country from San Francisco to New York via Chicago.

2. This culvert is not like any culvert one sees on the highway. It spans a small judicial ditch, a dug-up stream that channels water alongside and underneath the road.  The culvert is so small that one can barely see it. If it is seen, then one would think that it is a piece of concrete standing in the ditch and causing a nuisance to those mowing the ditches. The culvert is probably no longer than 6 feet in length and no higher than four feet, which is half the average size of a common culvert. Yet given the Art Deco design on the railings, this bridge was built after 1914, when Iowa introduced state standard bridge designs, which bridge builders had to abide by for safety purposes. The question is, who was behind the idea of this culvert? Why this concept when a steel tunnel culvert or a low-water crossing would have sufficed?

This is where you as the reader and/or researcher should find out about this. If you know of any stories behind this culvert, please contact the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles or place your comments accordingly and share them. The more info, the more likely this mystery will be solved. As the Jefferson Highway will turn 100 years old next year, you can share your stories with them as well. The bridge may be very small and somewhat insignificant, but it does have valuable information that is useful as the highway reaches the century mark in 2015.

Author’s Note: Thanks to the Jefferson Highway Organization for allowing the author to use the pic for this article. 

More Jefferson Highway bridges will be featured in the course of 1.5 years in the Chronicles as the highway celebrates its 100th birthday in 2015. If you want to contribute with a bridge or series of bridges, please contact Jason Smith at the Chronicles and information on how to submit will be provided. There are many valuable historic bridges that once served this unique route and should be honored for their service, even if some of them no longer exist.