Grain Truck Drops Historic Bridge in Iowa

Gillecie Bridge near Bluffton. Photo taken in 2005

143 year old Gilliece Bridge collapses after truck five-times its size tried crossing. Charges expected.


DECORAH, IOWA-  Almost a year and a half after a semi-truck drove across a historic bridge in Indiana, causing it to collapse, another incident, caused by a trucker ignoring a weight limit, has claimed a life of another historic bridge. Yesterday morning, a 15-ton grain truck tried crossing the Gilliece Bowstring Arch Bridge, spanning the Upper Iowa River at Cattle Creek Road, north of Bluffton, causing the bridge to collapse. According to multiple news sources, the driver of the truck ignored the weight restrictions posted on the 143-year old structure and tried to cross, going from east to west, causing the bridge to give way and the trailer to straddle the pier that used to hold the structure in place. The bridge had a weight limit of only three tons!  The driver of the truck, who works for Sinclair Milling Company of Parkersburg, survived the incident without injury, yet charges are pending for wreckless driving and disregarding the weight restrictions. According to Winneshiek County Highway Engineer, Lee Bjerke, in an interview with Decorah News, “When you see a weight limit on a bridge, we mean it. It’s there to keep you alive.”

The future of the bridge is questionable, given the damage to the structure. The curved upper chords are bent but can be straightened out, whereas the vertical and diagonal beams are either bent or broken in many places. Already hit by numerous tractors who had crossed it in the past, the upper bracings will need to be replaced, which will partially compromise the historical integrity of the bridge. Yet more details on the extant of the damage to the bridge will come as Julie Bowers of Workin Bridges, based in Grinnell, as well as other bridge restoration experts will examine the extent of the damage and determine its salvagibility of the bridge.

The Gilliece Bridge, which is also known as the Murtha or Daley, was constructed in 1874 by the Wrought Iron Bridge Company of Canton, Ohio. It was one of over two dozen bridges that were built by the company in the 1870s and 80s, thanks to efforts of bridge agent George Winthrop, who worked with the county to secure deals for bridges to benefit landowners living in the hilly areas along the Upper Iowa and Turkey Rivers. The bridge was 151 feet long with a main span of 129 feet. It was rehabilitated in the 1990s which included reinforcing the stone piers with concrete ones, one of which the truck trailer was sitting on when the bridge collapsed. It was considered historically significant in surveys conducted by the late James Hippen and the State of Iowa and was subsequentially listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Workin Bridges bought the structure with the intent to relocate it in the near future, allowing for the county to work on replacing it with a modern bridge.

The Gilliece Bridge was one of ten bridges on the county’s list for replacement. Yet with its collapse, combined with the inconvenience of the homeowners living near the bridge on both sides of the river, attempts will be made to expedite the replacement process. The  Upper Iowa River is currently closed off to canoeists so that the wreckage can be taken out of the river. With over a half dozen bowstring arch bridges that had been built in the county and a dozen built by Wrought Iron Bridge Company, Winneshiek County now has only one exemplar in both left, which is the Freeport Bridge. Yet unlike the Gilliece, this bridge, the second longest of its kind in the US, is serving pedestrians at a park east of Decorah, making it safe from careless drivers. Yet this incident serves as a reminder that compulsory education for math, vehicular driving and in particular, truck driving for those wishing to enter the profession is badly needed, so that people learn that careless driving can indeed cost lives, especially if people don’t pay attention to the laws of the road that exist for a good reason-

which is to respect the lives and property of others. This incident is another example of the disrespect to both, no matter how a person interprets it.

The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles will keep you posted on the latest regarding the Gillecie Bridge and the events that follow the incident.