Otranto Bridge in Iowa Gone!

Otranto Bridge in Mitchell County. Photo taken by Jason D. Smith in August 2011

Whereabouts of Historic Bridge in Mitchell County after Reported Dismantling Unknown.

The Otranto Bridge, spanning the Cedar River at St. Angsar, was unique because of its unusual truss design- the Camelback Pennsylvania Petit, one of two remaining in Iowa, according to a report by the Chronicles two years ago. The 170-foot long bridge was built by the Chicago Bridge and Iron Works Company in 1899 and had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1998.

That is until news came out of its disappearance from view today.

According to the Mason City Globe Gazette, the steel truss bridge was dismantled last week, and it is unknown where the bridge has gone to next. While it is unknown when or how it was taken down, Mitchell County officials had been working together with other parties to determine the bridge’s future, after flooding last summer undermined the eastern wingwalls, destabilizing the structure and raising questions of how the bridge could be salvaged. Cost for repairs had been estimated at $5000. The bridge had been made obsolete by a new bridge in 1999 and privately owned by the Will Morrow family. Interest in the bridge had increased since the flooding with plans of relocating the bridge for reuse. This includes the possibility of reusing it at Sunny Brae Golf Course, the same facility that is interested in the Giliecie Bridge in Winneshiek County, according to reports by the Mitchell County Press News in November 2013. Even the county historical society was interested in the purchase of the bridge to keep in place.

With the bridge removed, the question is what is the future for the bridge. Could it be that an owner has been found and it was just a question of finding temporary storage until it could be reset on new foundations? Or was the bridge such a liability issue that there was no choice but to tear it down?  If the latter was the case, then it would be a travesty for all involved: the county, state and people associated with the bridge.  The Morrow family was not contacted at the time of the bridge removal, meaning they could be the wild card as to determining what had happened to the bridge. But then again too, others may be interested in the bridge for their purposes.

In either case, the Otranto Bridge is gone and its destination is the unknown. The Chronicles will keep you posted on the latest.


Question for the Forum: The Pennsylvania Truss Bridges in Iowa

Greene Bridge, spanning the Shell Rock River carrying Traer Street. Built in 1902, it served traffic for 79 years. Photo courtesy of Hank Zaletel

Pennsylvania Truss Bridges: The longest of the truss bridge types that were used for America’s transportation system, but the rarely used. Or was it? This is the question that many researchers have been asking for many years, as many of them are compiling materials for bridge books, for even though statewide surveys were carried out at the earliest 20 years ago, questions about the credibility of the information has come up, which includes finding out how useful these bridges actually were, let alone how many of them were actually built in comparison to what was found in the research. Part of it has to do with the number of post cards and old pictures that people have found recently of old bridges that carry the signature design.

Orr Bridge, Harrison County. Photo courtesy of Clayton Fraser

Developed and patented in 1875 for the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Pennsylvania Truss Bridge is similar to the Parker Bridge, because of its polygonal top chord, yet it has subdivided diagonal beams supporting the main diagonal beams. Furthermore, as seen in the photo of the now extant Orr Bridge in Harrison County (Iowa), diagonal beams cross not one but two panels at the center of the span.  Pennsylvania trusses were used not only as single span crossings but also for wider river crossings as multiple spans, including those along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, many of which have long since disappeared. Reason for that is the fact that these bridges can range from 130 to 600 feet long, some even longer.  While these bridges were used for that purpose, the danger was that of the pressure applied to the roadway, creating tension to the diagonal beams and upper chord, resulting in the failure of even one of the subdivided beams, and as a consequence, the failure of the entire structure. That is the reason why they were used rarely. Or were they?

Example of a Pennsylvania Petit with A-frame portal bracing: Thunder Bridge over the Big Sioux River west of Spencer, Iowa. Built in 1905 by the Clinton Bridge and Iron Works, the bridge is 181 feet long. Photo taken in August 2011

This is where we look at the state of Iowa as the subject of debate.  20-25 years ago, a survey was conducted on Iowa’s truss bridges revealed that even though some Pennsylvania truss bridges were used for large crossings, like the Mississippi River crossings at Clinton and Muscatine, as well as the longest single-span crossing in the state at Greene (at 249 feet), the number of these bridges were rarely used in bridge building between 1880 and 1920. Seven bridges listed in the survey were examples of this bridge type, including the Thunder and Old Rusty Bridges in Spencer, the Bridgeport Bridge near Keokuk, one span of the multi-span Boone Bridge, the Rubio in Washington County, and the Berkheimer Bridge west of Humboldt, and the Orr Bridge. The Orr and Rubio Bridges have long since been removed. The Berkheimer Bridge currently holds the title as the longest bridge in the state, despite being closed to traffic between 2001 and 2005 for rehabilitation.

Yet two problems have come up that have the potential to refute the claim of its rare use on the state’s roads. The first one is the fact that at least three bridges surveyed have Pennsylvania truss types but have a flat lateral top chord, thus making them Camelback Pennsylvania trusses. This includes the Gochenour Bridge in Harrison County, and two bridges spanning the Cedar River in Mitchell County: the Otranto Bridge and the Deering Ford Bridge, the latter of which was replaced 15 years ago; the former is now privately owned and can be seen from its replacement bridge.

Otranto Bridge in Mitchell County. Photo taken in August 2011


The other one, which is perhaps the biggest of the problems supporting the claim is the number of Pennsylvania truss bridges that had existed prior to 1970. Even though they were demolished before a HABS-HAER survey was conducted on the Greene Bridge in 1979, two years prior to its demolition and replacement, recent discoveries by a pair of pontists residing in Iowa reveal that more of these that existed, thus putting the historic survey’s claim in doubt. This is not only applicable to multiple-span bridges, but also and especially to the single-span bridges. Some examples supporting the claim include another Skunk River crossing at Brighton, east of the Rubio Bridge, the Second Street Bridge in Independence, The Lincoln Highway Bridge over the Wapsipinicon River in Clinton County, a Big Sioux River crossing near Canton, South Dakota, Ripley’s Bridge in Floyd County, and a Little Sioux River crossing at Sioux Rapids in Buena Vista County.  With as many bridges of this kind along the Little Sioux River, one can even stretch the claim that the river may be the river with the highest amount of Pennsylvania trusses.

Lincoln Highway Bridge over Wapsipinicon River. Photo courtesy of Hank Zaletel.

In addition to the argument supporting more Pennsylvania trusses built in Iowa, it is possible that other bridge companies may have contributed in its construction of Pennsylvania truss bridges. While it is true that the Clinton Bridge and Iron Works Company constructed the majority of these truss bridges, including the ones in Greene, Spencer, and west of Humboldt, other bridge companies, such as the Iowa Bridge Company of Des Moines, Chicago Bridge and Iron Works, and even the Canton Bridge Company in Ohio took a piece of the bridge building pie as well. If one adds the Gochenour and Orr Bridges to the list of unknown bridge builders, as they were imported into Iowa in the 1950s, then one can claim that other bridge companies tried to keep Clinton from monopolizing the bridge building industry in Iowa by building their own Pennsylvania truss bridges, even though surveys confirmed that Iowa BC and Chicago B and IWC constructed them.

Brighton Bridge in Washington County. Photo courtesy of Hank Zaletel

The last one is the fact that Pennsylvania truss bridges were built well into the 1960s, for one can find two of these structures in Jackson County, spanning the Maquoketa River: one at Iron Bridge Road, and one on County Highway Z-34. It is possible that other bridges of that type built during that period can be found in Iowa as well, for these bridges were part of the standardized truss bridges, featuring riveted connections, that were introduced on Iowa’s highways beginning in 1914, although they were not used as often as the other truss bridge counterparts, such as the Pratt, Warren and Parker truss bridges.

All these claims lead to the following questions for the forum:

1. How many Pennsylvania truss bridges were actually built in Iowa between 1880 and 1960?

2. What other single span Pennsylvania truss bridges existed prior to 1970, besides the ones mentioned in the article? When and where were they built and who was the bridge builder?

3. Why were Pennsylvania truss bridges built beyond 1920 instead of the other truss types?

There are four ways to answer this question: One is directly through the social networking sites of Facebook and LinkedIn under the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles; the other is by leaving a reply in the comment section; the third option is via e-mail, and the fourth option is through the Historic Bridge Weekend, which takes place August 9-11 (please see the info here). There you can leave the info and photos in the Info and Photo Box, provided at the evening events or you can talk to the author directly, as he will be directing the conference in its entirety. The information will be used for the book project on Iowa’s Truss Bridges, which is ongoing as information is being collected as of present.

Pennsylvania truss bridges were a useful commodity on America’s roads, and to a certain degree, they still are today. Yet it remains questionable how many were really built and why they disappeared so rapidly, even though their lifespan was the same as any other truss bridge built between 1860 and the present- 70-120 years, pending on how they were used and how they were and still are maintained today.

Special thanks to Hank Zaletel and Luke Harden for digging out and submitting the photos, as well as allowing me to use the photos for this article.

Tracking Down a Bridge’s History Part 2: Examples

Silverdale Bridge in Washington County, Minnesota


Note: This is part II of the series on tracking down the history of a historic bridge. To view part I, please click here.

After going through some useful tips on info-tracking a historic bridge (similar to that of genealogical research), part II looks at a pair of success stories of how a historic bridge’s life was tracked down through research. Both historic bridges mentioned here were relocated at least once, yet thanks to the research conducted by historians and members of the state agencies, they were able to determine the origin of the bridge’s history, tracing its life from start to present.  One of the bridges is now enjoying its third life in service, even though it was close to becoming a pile of scrap metal, whereas the other no longer exists as attempts to relocate it a third time failed due to a tragedy. In either case, they are both worth mentioning and serving as poster boys for other bridges, whose lifespan remains to be researched.

Hansen’s Ford Bridge at Ellingson Bridge Road prior to its failed relocation attempt. Photo courtesy of Allamakee County Highway Department.


Example 1: Hansen’s Ford Bridge in Allamakee County

Location: Upper Iowa River at Ellingson Bridge Road just east of the Winneshiek/Allamakee County Border

Type: Two-span Whipple through truss bridge with Wrought Iron Bridge Company-style Town lattice portal bracing

Dimension: 278 feet long (Each span was 138 feet); 15.8 feet wide

Status: No longer exists. Destroyed during a relocation attempt in 1994 and later scrapped.

Also known as Ellingson Bridge due to its proximity to the family farmstead, the Hansen’s Ford Bridge was one of only a handful of bridges that featured two spans of a Whipple through truss bridge. The portal bracing is a textbook resemblance of the one used by the Wrought Iron Bridge Company in Canton, Ohio, the one that built the bridge. Research done by the late James Hippen of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and later followed up by other pontists (including yours truly) revealed that the bridge was relocated once in its lifetime. It was known as the Pierce Bridge and was originally constructed in 1878 over the Cedar River west of Osage in Mitchell County. It was one of three bridges that served the county seat. When officials wanted to grade the main highway (now known as Iowa Hwy. 9) and with that build a wider bridge, the bridge was dismantled and transported three counties over towards the east, while a new bridge was built in its place. The truss spans were constructed over the Upper Iowa River east of the county border with neighboring Winneshiek County, replacing a wooden trestle bridge. This all happened in 1939. Apart from newspaper articles and post cards, like this one, the key evidence proving its relocation was found in the blue print provided by the Allamakee County Highway Department.

Sadly though attempts to relocate the bridge for the second time failed. The bridge was supposed to be given over to a private group to be erected over the Yellow River in the southern part of the county, yet as the spans were being hoisted from the river, they fell apart and collapsed. The decision was made to scrap the bridge. It is unknown what caused the disaster, but it is assumed that age combined with lack of maintenance may have played a role in the failed attempt to give the bridge a new life off the public road system.

Silverdale Bridge shortly before being hoisted onto the foundations above Manning Avenue. Photo taken in December 2010


Example 2: Silverdale Bridge

Location: Manning Avenue on Gateway Trail east of Mahtomedi in Washington County, Minnesota

Type: Wrought iron pin-connected Camelback Pratt through truss bridge with Town lattice portal bracing

Dimension: 162 feet long and 17 feet wide

Status: In use as a recreational trail

The Silverdale Bridge has a very unique history for not only was it relocated four times- untypical of any truss bridge on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean- but it was a mystery bridge that took many years of research to solve. In particular, the question that was on the minds of personnel at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) was where it originated from and who built the bridge?

The bridge was built in 1877, using wrought iron instead of steel. The evidence was through a laboratory study conducted in 2002. Yet visual studies concluded that the bridge was first built over Sauk Lake in Sauk Centre, in Stearns County. This was based on collaboration between MnDOT, the Historical Society in Sauk Centre and locals affiliated with the bridge.  While a plaque was located on the top part of the portal bracing, up until now, it has not been identified as to who constructed the bridge, let alone whether the plaque still exists or if it has long since been destroyed. It is unknown whether any information from newspapers as to who built it would have helped.

The bridge’s life almost came to an untimely end, when it was replaced in 1935 with a steel stringer bridge and the truss bridge was relocated to a storage yard. Interestingly enough, the stringer span survived only 65 years before being replaced with a concrete span, which still serves main traffic today. It was salvaged two years later and was relocated over 500 kilometers northeast to Koochiching County in northern Minnesota. After replacing the strut bracings with one consisting of an X-laced strut bracings with 45° heels and trimming the curved heel bracings off the bridge’s portals, the truss bridge was re-erected over the Little Fork River between the villages of Rauch and Silverdale, serving Minnesota Hwy. 65. The portal bracings were replaced in 1964 after a truck damaged the northern entrance. Upon its removal from the highway system in 2008, the bridge remained in tact with the portal bracings that were a sixth of its height. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998 and when it was scheduled to be replaced, MnDOT placed the bridge on the “most valuable historic bridge to preserve” list with hopes that someone will take the bridge and use it for recreational purposes. Fortunately, Washington County stepped up to purchase the bridge to be used as part of the Gateway Trail, connecting Mahtomedi and Stillwater. The bridge was dismantled and transported to the Manning Avenue site, where it was refurbished and reassembled. Portal bracings resemble the ones used at Sauk Centre and at the Little Fork crossing prior to 1964. Before it was erected over Manning Avenue, it was painted black. Governmental shutdown in July 2011 delayed the opening of the bridge by six months. But since November 2011, the bridge has been serving the bike trail, its third life but one that will last another 150+ years if maintained properly and if the story of how the bridge was built, transported and rebuilt, let alone how its history was researched, is passed down to the next generations.


The bridge while serving main traffic in Sauk Centre. This photo was taken ca. 1902. Courtesy of MnDOT

The Sauk Centre Bridge after its opening in 1935. It was in service for 65 years. Photo courtesy of MnDOT
The Silverdale Bridge prior to its relocation. Photo taken by MnDOT in 2003
The replacement portal bracing. Photo taken by MnDOT in 2003
Damage to the portal bracing in 1964. Photo by MnDOT
The duplicate of the original portal bracings installed prior to its re-erection over Manning Avenue. Photo taken in August 2011


Fast Fact:

1. Sauk Centre was the birth place of author Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930. He is famous for the Fabulous Four, four novels dealing with the flaws of American society: Main Street, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry and Arrowsmith.    He also wrote over 100 short stories and other novels. His birthplace is now a museum and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

2. Minnesota Highway 65 used to be part of US Hwy. 65 from 1926 until the portion was handed over to the state in 1934. The highway starts near International Falls and terminates in Minneapolis with half the highway being an expressway between Cambridge and Minneapolis. US Hwy. 65, which used to run through Minneapolis and St. Paul from its southern terminus of the state of Louisiana, now terminates in Albert Lea, Minnesota. Parts of it was integrated into the Jefferson Highway.

Author’s Note: The author wishes to thank Pete Wilson at MnDOT and Brian Ridenour of the Allamakee County Highway Department as well as the Ellingson family for help with this information.