116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Taking in a piece of history led Roland and Darlene Donovan to recall their own.
The Iowa City couple let their lunch settle while sitting on a bench overlooking Sutliff Bridge on a picture-perfect afternoon Friday. The bridge is back to spanning the Cedar River in northeast Johnson County, and is set to reopen next month, after it was heavily damaged by raging floodwaters in 2008.
Roland, 78, and Darlene, who just turned 75, have been coming to the bridge for decades. They remember rowboat races on the river in the summer and golf ball-driving contests across it in the winter.
There were annual parades so short that “if you blinked, you missed it,” Darlene said. Roland reminisced about the time he was boy fishing on the west side of the bridge with his dad and nephew. He kept fishing while the other two went to eat at the tavern on the other side - the same spot where he and his wife ate Friday.
“There's hardly anything like this anymore,” Roland said.
The 114-year-old bridge itself almost wasn't anymore following the Floods of 2008. One-third of it was washed away, and there was a debate about whether it should be rebuilt.
By mid-October, though, a nearly $1.9 million project to restore the bridge will be finished. Construction started last spring, and only relatively minor work remains.
Sutliff Bridge opened in 1898 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was 827 feet long before the flood, closed to vehicular traffic in the 1980s and is one of a few Parker truss bridges left in Iowa.
The new section is a geometric replica of the original, said project manager Tim McDermott of VJ Engineering, the Coralville-based firm leading the work. Modern design standards were followed, like the use of heavy-duty joints rather than the old pin-connected ones, he said.
There is weathering steel throughout the structure that has a thin layer of corrosion that stops further corrosion and will match the century of wear on the rest of the bridge, he said. The new section has the burnt-orange look of rust and is a touch brighter than the faded original pieces, and it won't be painted.
The section left standing after the flood was reinforced to be brought up to code and some of the beams that make up the truss were straightened after being bent by flood debris, McDermott said.
“Everybody here is ecstatic to have it back. It looks as though the flood of '08 never happened,” said Randy Howell.
He runs Baxa's Sutliff Store and Tavern at the foot of the damaged side of the bridge. He said a Facebook page that includes project updates gets frequent hits from people across America and even in Europe.
Not everyone is thrilled with the bridge's reconstruction, however. Some residents and county officials have said so much money should not be spent fixing a pedestrian bridge given the national debt, or the money should have gone toward other projects.
Johnson County Supervisor Sally Stutsman said that while no local funds are being used, it's still taxpayers' money.
“I hear much more people still upset with what they term the bridge to nowhere,” she said.
The county turned over control of the bridge to the non-profit Sutliff Bridge Authority in 1984 to keep it from possibly being demolished. The county resumed control following the flood to get funding for it.
The Johnson County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 in 2010 to rebuild Sutliff Bridge. The county had the option of taking most of the money dedicated to the bridge and using it on another project instead. Stutsman and Pat Harney, who cast the dissenting votes, advocated using the money on roads or bridges that see vehicular traffic.
Harney said this month that, despite his vote, he wouldn't call the Sutliff Bridge project a waste of money and he's glad the bridge has turned out nice.
“Right now, it is what it is,” he said.
Supervisor Rod Sullivan grew up near the bridge but said his vote was based on tourism, not emotion. Motorists, bikers and cyclists seek out the bridge. Sullivan said places like Des Moines and Linn County, with its $1.7 million Mary Lundby Bridge at Pinicon Ridge Park, are building stylish bridges new.
“We already have one,” he said. “All we have to do is let them put it back.”
The $26,000 contributed in the past year-and-a-half to two Sutliff Bridge Authority funds created to help with bridge maintenance show the continued interest in the structure, said Sarah Brannaman, the group's treasurer.
Like the Donovans, she spent some time on a recent afternoon at Sutliff Bridge. The 42-year-old has lived nearby her entire life.
“It's a place where your common folk come out just to sit and watch the river go by and gather your thoughts,” she said.