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Survey of historic Ely's Stone Bridge underway

Civil engineering team from University of Colorado Denver studying span built in 1893

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ANAMOSA — Close to 20 people packed into a small, basement room at the Jones County Courthouse Thursday to discuss an issue of historic proportion — the uncertain future of the county’s more than 120-year-old Ely’s Stone Bridge.

For several in the room, including Rose Rohr, a member of the Jones County Historic Preservation Commission, the goal was saving the bridge, which was identified by county officials earlier this year as a strong candidate for replacement.

“The idea is, when you first look at any project, sometimes it’s a lot easier to do just what’s easier, but that’s the reason for this meeting,” Rohr said. “We’re trying to think out of the box and not just come up with the fast solution and try to actually come up with a good solution.”

Thursday’s meeting included the Jones County Board of Supervisors, county staff, historic preservation officials and — via telephone — representatives from the Iowa Department of Transportation.

In addition, representatives from the University of Colorado Denver, including civil engineering professor and bridge expert Kevin Rens, were in the room.

Rens arrived in Jones County this week to conduct a survey and collect data on the limestone, three-arched bridge located outside Monticello. Rens said that survey, which has a $25,000 to $30,000 price tag, comes at no cost to the county.

Rens said he plans to use the data to determine the state of the bridge and possible repair needs. He expects to have a report finished by the end of the year.

“Every little piece of data is necessary,” Rens said, adding the bridge — located on Hardscrabble Road in norther Jones County’s Lovell Township — is closed temporarily during the fact-gathering process, which should be completed this weekend.

The Board of Supervisors plans to use Rens’s data to determine a course of action for the county-owned bridge, which was built in 1893 by Monticello’s Reuben Ely Sr. and Reuben Ely Jr. and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Possibilities include repairing it, closing traffic to the bridge or creating alternate routes across Wet Creek, or demolishing the structure.

“I think we need to look at the structural data and all the other things that were brought up before we can make any determination,” said District 3 Supervisor Jon Zirkelbach.

According to a National Register of Historic Places data sheet, the 60-foot span is a significant piece of architecture because its design, which does not include keystones, is rare.

“Ely’s bridge, with its three elliptical arches, may be considered an unusual variant of a relatively rare form of bridge architecture in the state,” the document states, adding four generations of Ely Sr.’s descendants, all skilled in masonry, have been responsible for the bridge’s repair and maintenance.

Rens said he has offered to conduct two additional phases of bridge study, including a structural engineering analysis and creation of a repair plan and long-term sustainability plan. Those phases could be finished by late next year, he said.

Matt Donovan, cultural resource management director with the Iowa Department of Transportation, said as more formal plans for the bridge start coming together, his office plans to assist in an advisory capacity to identify potential state and federal grant sources for the chosen project.

The biggest factors are project cost and whether or not the bridge continues to carry motor vehicle traffic, Donovan said.

“Getting an understanding of how much this is going to cost will help us,” Donovan said. “The devil is in the details with grant applications.”

Most grants require some form of a local match, he added.

The one thing Donovan cautioned is that historic preservation projects, especially those with unique structures like Ely’s Stone Bridge, can be complicated.

“This one will be a challenging project; do not think in any way it’s not going to be,” he said.

Several present at Thursday’s meeting, including members of the Ely family and representatives from the University of Colorado Denver, plan to host a public open house to talk about the bridge at 8 p.m. Friday at the Jitney Wine Bar, 126 E. First St., Monticello.

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