The Okoboji Bridge at Parks Marina

Many thanks to Mary Dreier for the photos. 

Back in 2011, I had an opportunity to photograph, document and film the Okoboji Bridge, which used to span the Little Sioux River, a few miles west of West Lake Okoboji. It had spanned the strait that connected West and East Lakes as the second crossing between the first (a cable-stayed span with wooden towers) and the third, a single-span arch bridge. The current span, also an arch bridge, still carries US Hwy. 71 between Okoboji and Arnolds Park.

The bridge was damaged by the flooding during my visit and it would have taken a miracle to pull it out and make the necessary repairs in order for it to return to service someday. Most truss bridges damaged by major storms and floods are usually demolished and replaced because the repair costs are “too high,” according to county engineers. However the bridge was taken off the river and dismantled, stored somewhere until an owner would reclaim it and use it for his/her purpose.

That was according to


According to Mary Dreier, however, the bridge has a new owner.  Butch Parks, who owns the Parks Marina conglomerate, recently purchased the bridge. According to the website,

Parks Marina on East Lake Okoboji was established in 1983 when Leo “Butch” Parks purchased the then Gibson Sporting Goods. What was once a small fishing boat sales and repair facility, has expanded into a diversified three location business, with marinas, sales, service, storage, boat rentals, pro-shops, and specialty retail stores. Parks Marina on East Lake Okoboji features the World Famous Barefoot Bar. Okoboji Boat Works on West Lake Okoboji features much of the same, along with state of the art boat slips, the world’s largest Fish House, pro-shop and clothing Boutique, and a sandy beach for families to enjoy.

Part of the Parks Marina conglomerate includes a boat sales and service store in Sioux Falls, plus the Central Emporium in Arnolds Park, a shopping mall with over a century’s worth of tradition with small shops that sell food and merchandise typical of the Lakes Region.


Now how does the Okoboji Bridge come into play?

The board of the county historical society recently did a presentation on the bridge and its history, which was well-received by many visitors. It was learned that Mr. Parks bought the bridge a while back with plans to install the crossing over a pond located just outside its East Lake Okoboji location. Already a concrete bridge is in place, according to Google Maps, yet it doesn’t mean that it is impossible to install it either in its place or elsewhere on the grounds. What is known is according to Ms. Dreier, the bridge is currently sitting on the grounds, just outside the large building which stores boats and the like, waiting to be sold and used on the lakes.

What will become of the bridge is unclear. I enquired Parks Marina about the purchase of the bridge and its future use via e-mail, only to get a no response. It could be that the headquarters is still in hibernation and it’s just a matter of a few months until I get a response. It could also be that the owner is not sure what the plans are with the bridge. But in any case, if he does respond, I have some questions for him, which includes:

  1. Why this bridge?
  2. What are the plans for the structure?

To be continued. But for now, enjoy the photos Ms. Dreier took for this article.

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What to do with a HB: The Okoboji Bridge

Okoboji Bridge over the Little Sioux River in Dickinson County- washed out after flooding. Photo taken in August 2011


In connection with my last article on Thacher truss bridges, we are going to have a look at this bridge, the Okoboji Bridge. Located four miles west of Fostoria over the Little Sioux River on 180th Avenue, this bridge is unique both in terms of its design as well as its history.  Built by the Clinton Bridge and Iron Works Company, this riveted truss bridge is the only one left in the country that is a pony Thacher truss, if one looks at its configuration and compare it with the examples mentioned in the last article. Yet the reason for the configuration is in connection with its history. It was built at its original location in 1909- over the strait connecting East and West Lake Okoboji, connecting Okoboji to the north and Arnolds Park to the south, carrying what is today US Hwy. 71. Yet the bridge was a replacement for the numerous swing bridges that had been built and rebuilt since 1859. The 1909 truss bridge was also a swing bridge that operated by machine instead of by hand, like its predecessors, made of wood and whose towers featured stayed wired cables. Pictures of that bridge can be seen here, including the bridge in its opening position. 

Okoboji Bridge today
The Okoboji Bridge at the site where the Thacher truss swing bridge once served its use. Now widened and modernized to handle more traffic. Photo taken in August 2009

While the Thacher truss bridge served as an important asset to the region, the increase in traffic- both vehicular as well as marine, combined with the coming of Hwy. 71 in 1926 made it expendable and was replaced in 1929 by a fixed span- a closed spandrel arch bridge, which was later widened and modified in 1997 as part of the plan to widen all of Hwy. 71 to eliminate the bottleneck traffic that had been common, especially in the summer time and during the Fourth of July. Yet with the bridge being in service for only 20 years, the county decided to recycle the bridge and move it to an out-of-the-way remote and present location- over the Little Sioux River on a road served by a pair of farms, each located on the opposite sides of the small meandering stream. It had served traffic until its closure for structural reasons in the early 1990s.

Yet the future of the bridge is without hesitation, in serious doubt. During my visit to Iowa in August 2011, I looked for the Okoboji Bridge, only to find, as you can see in the picture above as well as through a gallery via flickr that the bridge was a victim of flooding.  Although not as severe as the one three years earlier, the flooding in Iowa in June and July caused substantial damage and loss to many crops and houses, thanks in part to a wet and stormy winter, combined with the late spring thaw, unseasonable temperatures and above normal rainfall. In fact, the hardest hit area were along the Missouri River, where a line between Sioux City and Kansas City was covered in water, turning the river into the Red Sea, and forcing an unprecedented detour of I-29 which followed I-35 to Des Moines and then I-80 to Omaha, for its original path was all but underwater. It was unexpected that the Little Sioux River, a small meandering stream that flows quietly like a snake through the farmland would become a lake full of rushing water. And for this bridge, it stood in the way of the flood, resulting in the truss bridge being knocked off its foundation and landing right into the river, with fallen trees and debris covering it.

Upon inspecting the bridge, photographing and filming it, the bridge seemed to be in excellent shape with some damage to the flooring. Yet with some work on the bridge, which includes repairing some bridge parts and repainting it, it could be reused again, either as a vehicular or a pedestrian bridge. Given its location, it is unlikely that it will be used again at its present location but can be relocated somewhere else in the county. Dickinson County has had a good track record regarding reusing truss bridges for cost-effective purposes, as two bridges (also along the Little Sioux River) were replaced using truss bridges that had been located elsewhere, either in Okoboji or to the south. The Okoboji Bridge would be of best service when relocated. Yet whether the county and IaDOT would agree with this proposal depends on their willingness to save this unique piece of artwork and the costs that would incur in the relocating and rehabilitation process. Even though I did get a chance to talk to IaDOT and some other people about the bridge, the flood issue was foremost on their minds and it was understandable if this issue was tabled because  of that. Yet today, even with fewer resources, one can have a look at the bridge and decide how to proceed from there.

Keeping this in mind, have a look at the photos I posted on flickr and the film I produced that is available on youtube and decide for yourself if:

1. The bridge is salvageable and why,

2. What should be done with the bridge in terms of repairs and rehabilitation, and

3. Do you know of a place where this bridge would be of better service?

You can post your comments here, via facebook and through e-mail. Another person of contact would be Julie Bowers at Workin Bridges. Her contact details are found here.

Author’s note: additional photos and info can be found by clicking on the underlined words.

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Name that bridge type: The answer to question 1






And now the answer to the question of naming the bridge type. As you will recall, in a posting from last Thursday, there was a post card of a bridge that spanned the Wapsipinicon River near Independence in Buchanan County, located in the northeastern part of Iowa.  While some people may have found the answer through James Baughn’s website, there are some who are not familiar with that, nor the picture, as it was posted most recently and readers have not yet had a look at the picture until now.

I can tell you that I had written about this bridge type a few years ago as part of an essay for a history class at the university here in Germany, and there are some examples of this bridge type that still exist today, even though there are two different types of this truss type that three bridge builders had used during their days.

The answer: The Thacher Truss. In 1881, Edwin Thacher (1840-1920), an engineering graduate of Renesselaer Polytechnic Institute,  invented and patented this unusual truss type. It is a mixture of four truss types: the Warren, Pratt, Whipple and Kellogg. While the Kellogg is a Pratt truss design featuring a subdivided panel supporting the original diagonal beams that connect the vertical beams, the Thacher features two sets of diagonal beams starting at each end of the truss bridge at the upper chord- one creates a panel similar to the Pratt truss, while the other crosses two or three panels before meeting the center panel, which forms an elusive A-frame. The bridge at Independence was the very first bridge that was built using this truss design. It was built in 1881 and was in service for over 40 years. Yet after having the design patented in 1885, Thacher went on to build numerous bridges of this type, most of which were built between 1885 and 1910. He later invented other bridge designs, some of which will be mentioned here later on.

Philips Mill and Crossing in Floyd County. Photo courtesy of the Floyd County Historical Society

While it was unknown how many of these types were actually built between 1881 and 1920, sources have indicated that Iowa may have been the breeding ground for experimenting with this truss type. Apart from the railroad bridge at Independence, the very first structure that was built using the Thacher, as many as four Thacher truss bridges were reported to have been built in the state. Among them include the longest single span truss bridge ever built in the state, the Philips Mill Bridge, spanning the Winnebago River outside Rockford, in Floyd County. Built in 1891, this 250 foot long bridge, dubbed as one of the most unusual truss bridges built in the country, was the successor to a two-span bowstring through arch bridge and served traffic until it was replaced in 1958. Other Thacher truss bridges built included one over the Shell Rock River north of Northwood (in Worth County), the Ellsworth Ranch Bridge over the Des Moines River in Emmet County and the Okoboji Bridge over the Little Sioux River in Dickinson County. Of which only the Ellsworth Ranch and Okoboji Bridges still exist today.

Ellsworth Ranch Bridge in Emmet County. One of many Thacher trusses built in Iowa. Photo taken in August 2011

On a national scale, if one counts the two remaining Iowa bridges, there are five bridges of this kind left, which include the Costilla Bridge in Colorado, Linville Creek Bridge in Virginia, and the Yellow Bank Creek Bridge in Minnesota. Two additional bridges, the Parshallburg Bridge (2009) and the Big Sioux River bridge in Hamlin County (2009) have long since disappeared due to flooding/ice jams and structural instability, respectively.  While the majority of the bridges mentioned here were constructed by the Wrought Iron Bridge Company in Canton, Ohio, the King Bridge Company in Cleveland constructed the Ellsworth Ranch, Yellow Bank and Hamlin County bridges, using a different hybrid of Thacher truss that was modified during James King’s reign as president of the bridge company (1892-1922).  The Clinton Bridge and Iron Company in Clinton, Iowa built the only Thacher pony truss bridge in the Okoboji Bridge, the bridge that is featured in the next article.  While the Ellsworth Ranch Bridge remains closed to traffic and seems to be abandoned, the Yellow Bank Bridge was relocated to Hastings, Minnesota in 2007 to serve as a replica of the Hastings Spiral Bridge at the Little Log Cabin Historic Village.

Okoboji Bridge over the Little Sioux River in Dickinson County- washed out after flooding. Photo taken in August 2011

And that is the answer to the pop quiz, even though for some experts in the field, the answer was obvious. Yet perhaps the next bridge type quiz may be even more challenging than the first one. As for the ones who didn’t know, this one should get you acquainted to the questions that are yet to come that will require some research. So let’s go to the next question, shall we?

Author’s Note: If you know of other Thacher Truss Bridges that existed in Iowa or any part of the US and would like to bring it to his attention (and that of the readers), you know where to reach him: or via facebook under The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles. He’ll be happy to add it in any future columns, and for his project on Iowa’s Truss Bridges, it will make an excellent addition.

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