Endangered T.R.U.S.S.: Lincoln Highway Bridge in Tama, Iowa

TAMA, IOWA- Created in 1913, the Lincoln Highway is the first trans-continental highway that went from coast to coast. Starting in San Francisco at Lincoln Park, the highway runs for 3,389 miles (5,454 km) through 14 US states before terminating at Times Square in New York City. Much of the route has been marked as US Highway 30 and there are many stops along the way where people can enjoy local dining, do a lot of fun activites and lodge in some of the hotels, all of which have been a fixture along the highway, some for as long as the highway has existed. There are many major crossing and historic bridges one can see along the Lincoln Highway.

Among them is this one, located in Tama in central Iowa. The Lincoln Highway Bridge is located at Roadside Park, spanning Mud Creek. Until it was bypassed by the expressway version of US Hwy. 30 in 2012, this bridge was one of the first sites to see when entering the community of 2800 inhabitants. And its one that is worth a stop. The bridge is a concrete stringer bridge but decorated with ornamental globe lighting and a railing bearing the name Lincoln Highway. The bridge was built in 1915 by local bridge builder, Paul Kingsley of Strawberry Point, Iowa. According to HAER records, the idea of the highway bridge with ornamental railings had a special meaning to it:

“In September 1912, the Midwestern visionary Carl Fisher proposed to group of automotive businessmen a plan to build a road spanning from coast to coast. The route, later named the Lincoln Highway, would start in New York City, finish in San Francisco, an cross 358 miles through the state of Iowa on the way. This monumental undertaking was to be privately funded with the towns and counties profiting from its passage sharing a large part of the construction costs. Thus, a widespread advertisement campaign for the transcontinental highway was launched with each community along its path trying to outdo the next in making itself the most desirable rest stop. The town of Tama distinguished itself from the rest by constructing a special bridge for the route with the words “Lincoln Highway” spelled out in the concrete railing. This bridge remains a most unusual maker for this historic highway.”

-Juliet Landler, HAER, 1995

Listed on the National Register since 1978, this unique bridge of 24 feet long and 22 feet wide is the only known historic bridge in the United States that has lettered railings and one of only a dozen or so in the world whose bridge section feature letterings. Another known bridge that has a similar lettering can be found in Duisburg, Germany at the Bridge of Solidarity, built in 1950 replacing a bridge destroyed in World War II. It was one bridge I stopped at during my visit to Tama in 2010 and given its approximate location to the park, it’s definitely a rest stop worth using for some photo opportunities and a good picnic. The bridge is home of the annual Lincoln Highway Bridge Festival, which is held in the summer and draws in thousands of visitors from all over the US and Europe.

Despite this, this unique historic bridge is in danger of becoming history, or at least being altered to a point of no recognition. Cracks have been revealed in the bridge span and parts of the railing, much of it has to do with wear and tear over the year. Even as the bridge has become part of the city and local traffic has been using it since the highway was bypassed in 2012, the bridge is still a big tourist attraction. But the future of the bridge is in the hands of the city council, which according to many news stories, is more or less divided.

One party would like to rehabilitate the bridge and make the necessary repairs to the structure to ensure that it continues to function for the next half century. While the city council had put aside funding for bridge repairs of up to $150,000 and the rest of the funding would be covered through a series of donations and support from the Iowa DOT, when presenting the bids for rehabbing the bridge by the engineering firm of Schuck-Britson from Des Moines in October 2021, the lowest bids was double the amount. Still, an in-kind restoration of the bridge would allow the bridge to continue to function as a crossing and as a tourist attraction.

Railings of the Bradford Street Arch Bridge in Marble Rock, Iowa when it was replaced in 1995. This is located at Marble Rock Park. Photo taken in 1999.


By the same token, there have been growing calls from members from another party, which favors moving the historic bridge, or at least the lettered railings and lamp posts to the adjacent park and install a 15-foot culvert over the river. Their argument was that it was less expensive, easy to maintain and easy to replace even if it had a 15-year lifespan. The downside to this plan is that it would alter the bridge to the point of no recognition and it would lose the tourist appeal, let alone its status on the National Register. This was the case with the Marble Rock Arch Bridge in Floyd County. The three-span concrete arch bridge, built in 1914, was replaced in 1995, but its railings were relocated to a nearby park- out of site and out of mind. 😦

The Tama City Council was supposed to make a decision on the bridge’s future, based on the information they collected, on March 21, 2022. At the present time, no decision has been made. There is a consensus that the bridge should be restored to its original form, but the paperwork and instructions needed for the project is lacking (see article here for details). That plus the increase in costs for restoring the bridge might doom the project altogether. This bridge is the last of the structures along Lincoln Highway in Tama County, after losing a similar icon over Otter Creek at Chelsea in 2006.

Still, to this day, despite the highway being bypassed, the Lincoln Highway Bridge remains a popular tourist attraction and one where its original purpose was to serve as a rest stop for travelers going along this important highway. There is hope that this purpose stays that way- not as a piece of relict being put on display but one that still has this function as a crossing over Mud Creek. If this stays, Tama will continue to have a tourist attraction many people- bridge-lovers, tourists and all people alike- will stop by to see, and enjoy the scenery. ❤ 🙂