Our Iowa Heritage: Iowa City – Iowa River Bridges.

No doubt about it, Iowa City is a river town. And today, there’s nothing more relaxing than a leisurely stroll along the Iowa River, taking in all the beauty of our fair city. But for the first twenty-five years of Iowa City’s existence (1839-1864), finding a way to get over that same beautiful river was quite the problem.

Crossing the Iowa River by ferry boat.

The first ferry to cross the Iowa River was built by Benjamin Miller, operating at Napoleon. One More River to Cross, Ruth A. Gallaher
A typical ferry crossing in the 19th century.

But by 1840, competition in the flatbed ferry business was starting to stir. On March 6, 1840, Andrew D. Stephen was granted a license to keep a ferry boat at the point where the “National Road” crossed the Iowa River (see red line on map below). But Mr. Stephens failed to establish a ferry in due time, so the license was given over to John D. Able (October 13, 1840), who established his ferry crossing “where the upper wagon bridge now crosses the river.” (Benjamin F. Shambaugh in his book, Iowa City: A Contribution to the Early History of Iowa)

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While records show that John Able was “able” to get things off the ground (or, in the water, so to speak), apparently his last name was not appropriate, because…

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As it turned out, Pleasant Arthur, who purchased John Able’s ferry business, gave it over to his son-in-law, Gilman Folsom, before he died in 1845. 

The First Iowa River Toll Bridges (1854-1860).

Circa 1865 – A pontoon bridge, also known as a floating bridge, uses floats or shallow-draft boats to support a continuous deck for pedestrian and vehicle travel. The buoyancy of the supports limits the maximum load they can carry.

In March 1853, Enos Metcalf received a license to build a toll bridge across the Iowa River but construction did not occur until several years later. In May 1853, Gilman Folsom, took out a similar license to build, and by 1854, Iowa City had its very first toll bridge located at the National Road crossing (the present-day Iowa Avenue bridge). At first, Folsom’s bridge was a pontoon (floating) bridge (see above) which was then replaced with a wooden structure in 1856. By that time, Enos Metcalf had finally built his own wooden toll bridge just south of the present day Burlington Street bridge. For more on this Folsom toll bridge story, click here.


Iowa City: A City of Bridges – The First Six Bridges in Our Iowa Heritage.

Iowa City in 1868.
Iowa City today.
Today’s Burlington Street Bridge – the location of Iowa City’s first “free” bridge.

Iowa River Bridge #1: The Burlington Street Bridge (1860).

The oldest “public” bridge in Iowa City, was approved (at Burlington Street) in 1859 and was completed in 1860. A wooden structure (like the toll bridges that preceded it) and poorly constructed, the bridge was wildly popular, putting the older “toll” bridges out of business. But disaster struck when the bridge partially collapsed in October 1863 as a herd of oxen panicked while crossing. With the toll bridges in disrepair, this left the citizens of Iowa City with no bridge to cross the river! Fortunately, businessman, Gilman Folsom, came to the rescue, re-opening his toll bridge until repairs could be done. Read more here.

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The “second” Burlington Street Bridge. Pictured above is the Burlington Street Bridge (on the left) as it appeared in the 1868 bird’s eye map of Iowa City. By 1864, repairs were made on the original 1860 bridge, and the “new” Burlington Street free bridge was reopened, this time part wood and part iron.

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The “third” Burlington Street Bridge. The “second” Burlington Street bridge was finally replaced with a new iron structure in 1871. “It is good the era of rotten wood bridges is passing away,” commented an Iowa City news­paper editor. Note in our picture, the smoke coming from the two chimneys of the First Armory/Power Plant, located just west of Old Capitol!

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(P-0198) (P-0065) Circa 1910 – the “third” Burlington Street Bridge, Dam & River Road.

Around the turn of the century, Terrell’s mill dam (north of Iowa City) was dynamited and replaced in 1905 with a new dam and water power plant further downstream, adjacent to the Burlington Street bridge.

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(P-0066) A view of Iowa River dam and power house, next to the “third” Burlington Street Bridge.
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(P-0067) The Dam and Power House were added in 1908.
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The “fourth” Burlington Street Bridge – Iowa City. The old high truss bridge, built in 1871, was replaced by this concrete bridge in 1915 and widened to four lanes in 1960. This is the Burlington Street bridge that remains today.

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(P-0069)  1970’s Burlington Street Bridge – Spiral Crosswalk. 

Iowa River Bridge #2: The Mississippi & Missouri (M&M) Railroad Bridge (1860).

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The original M&M Bridge crossing the Iowa River was a single-track deck truss (built circa 1859-60), and is pictured in this 1868 bird’s eye map of Iowa City (bridge on the right). When the railroad came to town (1856), Iowa City was the “end of the line” for those wanting railroad access to the West. Not until four years later (1860) when M&M built this bridge could a train venture further west than the Iowa River.

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At first, the M&M bridge connected with an additional 20 miles of track to Homestead on August 31, 1860. In 1866, M&M become part of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad and the Rock Island later saw the completion of the Iowa route to Des Moines (1866) and then Omaha/Council Bluffs (1869). Click here to read more about the railroad coming to Iowa City in 1856.

Below are re-construction pics from 1901, plus what the bridge looks like today.


Iowa River Bridge #3: The Iowa Avenue Bridge (1876).

The Folsom Toll Bridge was located at the foot of what is today Iowa Avenue. In the early 1850’s, would-be prospectors gathered here, at the foot of Iowa Avenue, in tents and wagons as they’d wait to ferry across the river on their way to California looking for gold.

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By 1876, a new iron bridge replaced the long “out-of-service” Folsom bridge, and with it being the nation’s centennial year (1776-1876), the new bridge was called The Centennial Bridge.

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The Iowa Avenue Bridge (The Centennial Bridge). Named the Centennial Bridge in honor of the nation’s 100th birthday -1776-1876. Over the years, the Iowa Avenue bridge probably offers photographers their best “shot” of the Pentacrest.

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In 1916, a new steel bridge replaced Centennial Bridge, and is now simply called the Iowa Avenue Bridge.

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Iowa River Bridge #4: The CRANDIC Railroad Bridge (1904).

The CRANDIC (Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railroad) was one of many interurban railroads in Iowa. Beginning passenger operations in 1904 (through May 30, 1953), the CRANDIC was an electric railway running 13 trains daily, with each trip taking 75 minutes.

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(P-0076) Circa 1905 – University Square with CRANDIC Bridge in foreground.
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(P-0205 Circa 1919
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(P-0077) The CRANDIC (Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railroad).
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(M-0007) CRANDIC Railroad Patch, (M-0008) Tickets, (P-0078) CRANDIC Train Car-circa 1940s-1950s.

Here’s the CRANDIC depot near downtown Iowa City – Circa early-1950’s. (L-0065a/b)


Iowa River Bridge #5: The Benton Street Bridge (1904).

The Ryerson (Benton Street) Bridge was lo­cated just south of the city near the site of the Ryerson Mill. At a meeting in December, 1901, the county supervisors decided to accept the bid of the Amer­ican Bridge Company to erect an iron bridge at this point on the Iowa River, the price being $10,450. The Ryerson Bridge opened in 1904.

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In 1949, the Ryerson Bridge was replaced by a modern steel bridge and renamed the Benton Street Bridge, which in turn, in 1989, was demolished and replaced with a modern highway bridge. A historical marker nearby describes the bridge’s history.

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The Iowa River was first crossed near this site by the Ralston Creek Ferry in 1839-40. Then it was bridged upstream in 1853 to better serve Old Capitol and Iowa Avenue. Then came the railroad and Ryerson’s Mill, just upstream of the west bank. This site was then bridged with light steel truss spans and timber approaches in 1902-03 to serve the mill, and the first bridge was known as the “Ryerson Bridge” until the old mill burned. It later became known as the “Benton Street Bridge” from its location. The present bridge replaced the original one in 1949 at a cost of $276,000.00.


Iowa River Bridge #6: The Park Bridge (1909).

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The demolition of Terrell’s dam. Walter Terrell’s original mill (1843) was carried away in the flood of 1881, ending his successful milling business, but the dam remained in place until well after the turn of the century, when it was dynamited and replaced with a new dam and water power plant further downstream, adjacent to the Burlington Street bridge. With the Terrell dam gone, the river sank back to its original level, flooding curtailed and improvement projects by both the city and the university began along both sides of the river. Click here to read more about Terrell’s Dam & Mill.

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In 1909, the Iowa River’s landscape changed with the construction of Park Bridge, which for the first time directly linked the city on the eastern side of the river to the park on the west. It provided wagon, auto and trolley car traffic access to the newly opened Manville Heights area. Click here to read more about the new City Park that opened in 1906.

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(M-0009) Trolley cars ran on the Park Bridge, followed by city buses, all provided by the Iowa City Coach Company.
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(P-0079) The Park Bridge in Iowa City.  Between 1917 and 1930 little occurred along the Iowa River except for the completion of the innovative Burlington Street Bridge in 1915, replacing the 1860 steel arch bridge. During this time, the area along Riverside Drive north of Iowa Avenue consisted of abandoned quarries. Most of North Dubuque Street was much the same and the limekilns still operating near the Mayflower dorms.

In 1930, the Iowa Memorial Union Walking Bridge (pics above) was added. And within the last few years, as Iowa City recovered from our devastating 2008 flood, the Park Street Bridge has been re-built (see below) in 2018.

Beautiful additions to our growing collection of Iowa River bridges.
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Iowa City: A City of Bridges (1965) – looking north. Iowa Avenue Bridge, CRANDIC Bridge, Memorial Union Footbridge, Park River Bridge.
Enjoy Iowa City Historian Irving Weber tell his 23-minute story (from 1980’s) about the Iowa River and the many bridges that cross it.

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Iowa City scene, Think Iowa City website

One More River to Cross, Ruth A. Gallaher, Palimpsest – March 1927, Article 3

Iowa River Bridges, Bridge Hunter.com

Rock Island Railroad Bridge Over Iowa River – 1860, Irving Weber, Historical Stories About Iowa City – Volume 2, Article 114, 1975, pp. 2-4

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