Saving a bridge6/24/2015
This is a story of corporate bid-rigging (absolutely), municipal corruption (allegedly), political in-fighting (definitely), opportunistic land-owners (seemingly), nasty lawsuits (certainly) and east-side-vs.-west-side chauvinism (naturally) in Des Moines.
All the intrigue took place in the 1890s. The salvation is taking place right now.
What is being saved is what is known officially as the Southwest Fifth Street Bridge, unofficially as the Jackson Street (or, more correctly, Jackson Avenue) Bridge, and more recently as the Green Bridge. It crosses the Raccoon River downtown, but it crosses it at an odd angle because the river was moved after the bridge was built. (The river channel was moved to ensure that there would never again be a flood in downtown Des Moines. Not everything works out as planned.)
The bridge is a historic bridge, one of only three of its type left in urban areas in Iowa.
And until recently, it was in danger of being torn down by the city.
The bridge was built for wagons and horses in 1898, morphed into a crossing for cars and delivery trucks in the 1920s, served as a shortcut for school kids and factory workers in the 1940s, became a well-trafficked if somewhat shaky road to downtown in the 1960s and became a key link in the Meredith Trail for hikers and bikers in 2005. It was closed to cars and trucks in 1993 and to everyone else in 2013.
With a little luck, and $2.3 million being raised in private and government money, it will be re-opened as part of the Meredith Trail next year.
Once wobbly, it will be safe and sturdy. “It was scary,” recalls Rose Mary Pratt, who as Rose Mary Vito grew up a few blocks from it on Dunham Street. “It was narrow and made noise that seemed rickety, and the car tires bounced,” she recalls. “When dad drove across the bridge,” there was “lots of rumbling from the wooden deck. My friends and I always raised our feet when we drove across the bridge. Somehow, we thought that was safer.”
The first bridge in Des Moines was a pontoon bridge that crossed the Des Moines River at Sycamore Street, which was the original name for what is now Grand Avenue. That was built in 1856. The first real bridge, a trestle bridge, was put up at Market Street in 1857, but it was destroyed by a flood two years later. The next year, a covered bridge was built across the Raccoon River at First Street, and it lasted until it met up with an ice jam in 1913. In 1866, a toll bridge was built across the Des Moines River at Walnut Street — the toll was 20 cents, and after 13 months the crossings became free — and a bridge was built across Court Avenue in 1870.
By the 1890s, the city had just four bridges: the Walnut and Court bridges across the Des Moines River, and the so-called ‘Coon covered bridge at First Street and another across the Raccoon at Seventh Street.
A new bridge for wagons and carriages was proposed in 1896 when city fathers found themselves with $30,000 they could spare. The people on the East Side wanted a bridge over the Des Moines River downstream, but they couldn’t agree on where. The West-siders wanted one over the Raccoon River at Fifth Street as a quick way downtown for the factory workers and residents of the growing Italian community on the south side. (By 1910, Jackson Avenue was home to families with names still familiar in Des Moines — Marasco and Scalise and Funaro and Mauro, among others.)
Because the east-siders were divided, the unified west-siders won, and the aldermen voted for the Fifth Street bridge.
Then all hell broke loose. Or at least all heck.
“It is an expenditure not at all demanded now, and probably will not be for years to come,” huffed Plain Talk, the East Des Moines weekly newspaper. “There is not the least particle of necessity” for the Raccoon River bridge. “There is certainly no demand for it.”
And one history text says the location of the bridge was “pushed by the Clifton Land Company, which owned large areas on the south side of Des Moines.”
There were five bridge-building companies in Des Moines in the 1890s, according to city directories of the day, and they seemed to have a gentlemen’s agreement — a corrupt-gentlemen’s agreement — that when a job came up the conspirators would decide which company would submit the winning bid. But, they agreed, that bidder would build in enough profit so he could share the bounty with the others. That eliminated price-cutting competition and assured a piece of the pie for everyone. To hell with the taxpayers who were footing the bill.
But in 1896, contractor John H. Killmar didn’t play along. Killmar’s primary business was lumber — he was president of the Dixie Lumber Co. in Des Moines — but he put in a low bid of $19,000 for the bridge, and he got the job. Indeed, he was $5,000 under the cooked-up bids.
A citizen sued. The citizen, a coal-company employee named C. Jenney, was probably put up to the lawsuit by one of the other contractors, but that’s of no import. The suit alleged that Killmar had inside information about the plans — that he had more details than the other bidders had — and the lower court agreed.
But Killmar appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor in October of 1897.
So he built the bridge. The construction was not without problems. Fearful of sabotage — feelings still ran strong about the bidding — the police posted a guard and wagon at the bridge all during construction. What’s more, there were delays in getting steel, which in the 1890s was replacing iron in bridge-building, and weather set back construction.
Nevertheless, the bridge opened on June 17, 1898, less than a year after the Supreme Court ruling.
At the time, the population of Des Moines was about 62,000, and by 1900 there were 7,768 horses, asses, mules and burros hauling goods and people through the streets.
But the automobile was coming. Around 1890, William Morrison of Des Moines built the nation’s first four-wheeled, electric car. In 1906, Charles H. Morrison established the city’s first automobile dealership. (He was the forerunner of all car salesmen. “He is a fluent and convincing talker,” a history written in 1911 noted. “He understands the automobile and he firmly believes in its necessity and great importance to modern life.” He was also “an earnest Republican.”) By 1910, the horse population had dropped to 4,414.
The Green Bridge is a long bridge — 401 feet, to be exact — with three steel trusses. The trusses are known as Pratt trusses, named after early American engineer Thomas Pratt, and while the use of Pratt trusses was common for wagon bridges of the day, few of the long bridges exist in American cities. In 1998, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
But for the color, the bridge structure today remains much as it was when built. It “retains a high degree of integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association,” the city wrote in 1998 when successfully seeking to have the bridge listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In fact, though, it was deteriorating. It required structural repairs in 1976 and again in 1989, and in 1993 it was closed to cars when the nearby Third Street Bridge was opened. At that time, city officials agreed the bridge should be incorporated into the city’s growing trail systems. They agreed on the outline of what is now the Meredith Trail, and they agreed the bridge would be a part of it. It officially became part of the trail when the trail was dedicated on Oct. 14, 2005.
The Meredith Trail, which connects to the Principal Riverwalk at Court Avenue and to the Kruidenier and Bill Riley trails at Gray’s Lake, is in a way the hub of central Iowa’s 600-mile trail system, which heads out in all directions from the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers. It is heavily used by bikers and hikers and has changed the lifestyles of many in the city — particularly the increasing numbers of people who live downtown.
But the trail took a hit two years ago when the city deemed the Green Bridge unsafe. It quickly closed the bridge — putting fencing across the entrances — and created a dead-end for the leg of the trail that runs up the north side of the Raccoon. City officials decided to take down the bridge.
That got the attention of bikers, hikers, downtown residents and folks wanting to preserve the structures of the past. The city relented, and it said it would not tear the bridge down if supporters could raise the money to repair and restore it. That figure turned out to be $2.3 million. The city said it would donate the $750,000 it would otherwise spend on demolition, and the state came in with a $500,000 grant. The county is expected to contribute, too, and regular citizens are pitching in to raise the rest.
The contributors range from bikers who use the bridge to Mell Meredith and the Meredith interests, who have pledged $200,000 — on top of the $100,000 they spent for an engineering study. The Friends of the Des Moines Parks have pitched in, and the $12,000 raised this year by the Mayor’s Bike Ride was given to the cause.
Ben Page, the energetic head of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, is providing a lot of technical help, and supporters have told him they’ll have all the money raised by next month. So far, no one has said “no,” they said.
If the money is raised — and that seems a certainty — the bridge will be repaired and restored next year, Page says. The project will include repairing and replacing some lower bridge sections. Some of the wood deck will be replaced, but much of it will be reused in the new deck. Ironworkers will repair and replace rusted or damaged steel, and sandblasters working inside a tent will blast off the lead-based paint. The new deck will be narrower — about 14 feet wide — than the current 25-foot wide deck, but still wider than most trails in the area.
One unknown: What color will the Green Bridge be?
Some people have suggested it be green. CV
No more flooding?
The Southwest Fifth Street Bridge over the Raccoon River was opened on June 17, 1898.
Five years later, the city fathers decided to move the river.
At the time, the river headed north at about Fifth Street and then started bending east toward the Des Moines River. The two came together at the point where the historic log cabin is located — the site of the first dwelling in what was then known as Fort Des Moines.
What is now Principal Park — and what was then a city dump — was south of the Raccoon.
A river that flows north into a south-flowing river serves as a dam, backing up the waters in both rivers. So floods were common in the city, and some sanitary sewers were discharging into the Des Moines River as it flowed through the growing commercial district.
The solution was to move the river.
“The engineers are agreed upon the proposition that the cutting of the new channel for the ‘Coon would forever remove the danger of floods to the city,” a Des Moines newspaper reported too optimistically in 1903, not long after a May flood sent the rivers out of their banks. “A rise such as recorded in May would be out of the question.”
The bridge would have to be moved, the engineers said.
They wanted to start the new channel above the new bridge and redirect it so it joined the Des Moines somewhere around East Ninth Street, cutting just south of the heart of the Italian community that is across the present-day Raccoon River.
The idea was debated for years, and work on the new channel finally began in 1913. But the new channel starts just about where the bridge is — which explains why the bridge runs at an odd angle over the river — and it joins the Des Moines around East First Street, not East Ninth.
The city dump was closed, and it was covered with dirt taken from the channel project. The ball field now is about nine feet above what was the surface of the dump. Indeed, a couple of years ago when the Iowa Cubs built an addition to the locker room at the north end of the stadium, contractors came across a brick road nine feet down. It clearly had been a riverside drive at one point. Contractors a couple of blocks away ran into a pair of privies nine feet down.
It’s unclear exactly when the old channel was completely filled in. Maps from the 1920s show both channels with an island in the middle. The first ballpark on that land was built in 1947.
Meantime, of course, floods continue. CV
A bridge to somewhere
One day, more than 90 years ago, Antonio Romeo was smitten by a young woman named Francesca Lavia, whom he saw on the south side. Who is she? he asked his friends. How can I meet her?
She walks across the Jackson Street Bridge every day on her way home from work, they told him. And she, like young Antonio, had been born in Italy, they said. So he hung around the bridge until he saw her, and he introduced himself. He began meeting her every day on her way home. They’d talk and flirt — it was the only place they could be alone in that era of family members keeping a vigilant eye on their daughters and sisters.
And when he kissed her for the very first time, it was on the bridge.
They were married Aug. 10, 1924.
Their son, Attanasio Romeo, who is sometimes known as Tony, heard that story from his parents as he was growing up on Granger Avenue. He was born there, and he lived in that same house for more than 70 years, and he, too, regularly crossed the bridge — to go to the movies, to go downtown, to go to the old Dowling High School at Ninth and College.
It was a creaky old bridge even then, he says, but it was a bridge to somewhere. When he was young, he says, “Little Italy was our whole life.” But when he and his friends crossed the bridge, it was a trip “into another world.” CV
Want to help?
If you want to help support the effort to save the Green Bridge, you can send a check to “Jackson Street Bridge Fund,” in care of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, 1901 Grand Ave., Des Moines 50309. Contributions are tax deductible. CV