Niland’s Corner Bridge to Become History?

Oblique view of the Colo Bridge and its historic crossing. Photos taken in 2013

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COLO, IOWA-  Looking back at the history books, in particular of America’s infrastructure, the two most important arteries that criss-crossed the country were the Jefferson Highway and the Lincoln Highway. The Jefferson started in Winnepeg (Canada) and, heading south through Des Moines, Kansas City and Baton Rouge, terminated in New Orleans. The Lincoln Highway started in San Francisco and headed east through Chicago and Cleveland before terminating in New York City. The two highways intersected at a small quiet town of Colo in eastern Iowa. Located 10 miles east of Ames, the town has prided itself on having the following landmarks:

  1. A historic gas station with a display of antique cars and gas pumps dating back to the 1930s
  2. Niland’s Cafe and Motel, one of the last of its kind that features a diner and a Sunday brunch with food prepared by hand from the home kitchen. The motel used to serve as a campground before being converted to mini houses to put travellers up for the night.
  3. The first known interchange in the country.

The third key element is at stake as officials from Iowa DOT are looking at improving the intersection. The interchange  was built in 1936 and was once used as an entrance ramp for Sherman tanks heading to military bases to be transported to Europe in World War II. The overpass, a steel plate girder span,  was constructed in 1938 and still crosses the Jefferson Highway (now US Hwy. 65) on the Lincoln Highway (now county highway E-41). The interchange is the prototype of the interchanges we see today on all freeways in the US, Canada and parts of Europe.

Because of problems involving low clearance, the DOT has proposed one of two alternatives to improve the intersection. The first is to rehabilitate the bridge and improve the intersection while installing sensors to alert drivers of oversized semi-trucks of a low clearance, warning them to get off the highway (an article can be found here).  The other option- one that has met opposition by locals and historicans- is to eliminate the entire interchange and install a four-way stop intersection. That option will completely alter the landscape of the corner as several buildings and trees would need to come down and only part of the ramp would be used as an entrance to the parking lot of Niland’s Corner.

Yet one wonders if a third option, using an alternative highway would be most viable. While assumptions have been made that traffic will increase, how much of that would consist of semis? On a two-way highway as the two historic ones, the chances of that happening are slim. Even so, a permit to use the highway for hauling oversized items and having an escort would avoid the problems of height and width issues. With two expressways to the south and west of Colo, the problem of convenience is solved, with the exception of a trucker wishing to stop at a motel for food and board for one night. 😉

This leads to the situation at hand: Is it worth the millions of dollars being doled out to alter Niland’s Corner to a point of no recognition, losing the historic status and the attractiveness of the people attached to the historic highway, or would it make much sense for truckers to use the alternative routes and save taxpayer’s money; furthermore, preserve this very unique and historic mark? Logic says take the Interstate to Albert Lea, Minnesota, where accomodations are plentiful for truckers and allow Colo to thrive under the tourists. After all, less is more for the small community and people can enjoy a little history and some good home-cooked food for a night.

Or perhaps some pics, as this author indulged profusely in doing during his visit with his family in 2013 (click here).


Southern portion of the prototypical exit and the railroad underpass.

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Information on the Lincoln and Jefferson Highways can be found here (L) and here (J).

Since 1973, Albert Lea has taken over as the main meeting point of two of the busiest interstate highways in the US. Interstate 90 is an east-west route that starts in Seattle and after passing through Billings, Sioux Falls, Chicago, Cleveland and Buffalo, terminates in Boston. The interstate is the longest in the country at 3,032 miles and was the last main highway to have been completely built, with the golden stripe having been built near Blue Earth, Minnesota in 1979 and the retirement of the traffic light in Wallace, Idaho in 1992. Markers can be found at both sites.   Interstate 35 starts in Duluth in Minnesota and after passing through Minneapolis,  Des Moines, Kansas City, Tulsa, Austin and Dallas, terminates in Laredo at the Mexican border. While it does not start in Canada, a major highway between Duluth and Thunder Bay provides travellers with scenic views of Lake Superior. It is the third longest interstate highway in the US behind I-75 and I-95


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