Mystery Bridge Nr. 88: The Bridges of Davis City, Iowa

Photo provided by Hank Zalatel

The next mystery bridge actually features two structures located only 500-600 feet from each other. One of them was a railroad bridge, the other was a wagon bridge of the bygone era that has now been supplanted by the current structure. Both are located over the Grand River in the small town of Davis City in Decatur County, Iowa. The difference between the two in terms of appearance are the trusses originally built and rebuilt at different times. With the wagon bridge, there were two different truss spans, each one having been built by a different bridge builder. Each crossing had different truss designs and as they were both overhead truss bridges, they had different portal bracings. While both of these bridges are long gone and the railroad crossing has been removed since the early 1980s, a lot of questions about the structures remain open, especially as to the bridges’ dimensions, the builders and the dates of construction, although one needs to be clear that Davis City was established in 1854 with the railroad coming to town in 1879, the time of the arrival of the Chicago-Burlington and Quincy Railroad (known here as the Quincy Line), according to information from local historical resources. Using that date as our starting point, let’s take a look at the profile of each crossing, whose mysteries need to be solved


The 1911 Wagon Bridge. Photo courtesy of the Decatur County Historical Society.

Wagon Bridge:


Spanning the Grand River at present-day North Bridge Street, US Hwy. 69 and River Bank Park, this bridge used to carry the Jefferson  Highway, the first north-south intercontinental highway that was established in 1915, connecting Winnepeg with New Orleans with stops in Minneapolis-St. Paul, St. Louis, Memphis and Vicksburg. The current structure was built in 2011, replacing a concrete slab bridge that had existed since 1931. While the 1931 structure was considered eligible for the National Register of Historic Places according to research by the late James Hippen and officials at Iowa DOT, its predecessor would surely have been listed had it remained standing. According to local historical resources, including the county historical society and town records, the two-truss span was built in 1911, yet although the spans featured pin-connected Pratt trusses, the portal bracings indicated that they were built by two different bridge builders. One span features a 3-rhombus Howe lattice portal bracing with 45° angled heels, a protocol that had existed since the late 1890s. The older truss had Town lattice portals with heel bracings, BUT with ornamental features on each of the top chord portal entrances plus a builder’s plaque, located on the top of the portal.  Two theories come to mind when looking at this structure: 1. The older truss was one of the original ones of a 2-3 span crossing, and it was subsequentially replaced by the newer truss to replace one of the spans that collapsed or was destroyed in a flood. 2. There was a covered bridge or even an iron structure that had existed prior to 1911 and the town petitioned the county to build a new bridge. The spans came from two different places and replaced the original one built when the town was founded. In order to prove one or the other, one needs to find out when the first crossing was built and by whom. Then we need to find out the events that led to the replacement of one or both spans of the bridge, when the replacement span was built and which bridge builder was responsible. Should the two different spans were put together in 1911 to replace the earlier spans, where did the bridges originate from? And lastly, why did the bridge last for such a short time (only 20 years) and when the concrete bridge was built, what happened to the truss spans? Were they scrapped or relocated? Only by answering these questions will we be sure about the short history of this crossing.

The Quincy Line Whipple truss bridge. Photo courtesy of the Decatur County Historical Society.

Quincy Railroad Bridge:

Located 500-600 east of Wagon Bridge at the site of Mill and Maple Streets, the Quincy Railroad Bridge featured two different truss bridges yet they were single span crossings with trestle approaches. The first crossing was a Whipple through truss bridge with pinned connections and Town Lattice portal bracings. The length of the truss span was between 160 and 180 feet long, about three quarters as long as the length of neighboring Wagon Bridge, yet with the trestle approaches, the total length was between 400 and 450 feet. The bridge was built in 1879 at the time of the railroad coming through Davis City, even though there is no information regarding the bridge builder. The rail line was supposed to connect Leon with Mount Ayr and points to the southwestern part of Iowa. The bridge existed until about the time of the replacement of the Wagon Bridge in 1911 although when exactly this happened is unclear. It is known that the replacement bridge was a Pratt through truss bridge with V-laced portal and strut bracings and riveted connections. The length of the main span appeared to be between 130 and 150 feet with the total length being 300 feet.  Riveted truss bridges were being introduced around 1910 for both railroad and highway crossings because of their sturdiness. Therefore it is logical that the Quincy Line needed a stronger crossing to accomodate the needs of the customers along the way. The question is whether the Whipple truss bridge was replaced at the same time as the Wagon Bridge. If so was it because of a natural disaster that affected Davis City or was it circumstantial? If not, when was the railroad bridge replaced? Judging by the postcards in the geneology page (click on the names of the bridges for more information), the Whipple truss bridge existed well beyond 1905 with the last photo having been taken in 1907. The question is when was it replaced and by whom? While the Quincy became part of the Burlington Northern (and later the BNSF) Consortium, the line through Davis City was abandoned sometime during the 1980s, and the bridge was subsequentially removed. All that is left is a small section of what is used to be a rail line to the north of the town.


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