116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
It took just eight months for the first bridge to be built across the Iowa River “at Mehaffey’s” in 1896 by J.E. Jayne of Iowa City. The Johnson County Board of Supervisors received the request in April, visited the site and approved the proposal.
The new bridge was named after Linn County native S.M. Mehaffey, who came to Johnson County in 1872 and owned the land on the west bank of the river. The bridge cost $5,467.05.
The Mehaffey Bridge was one of several built after the flood of 1895 swept away or damaged many bridges in the area. Other new bridges built within five years of the flood were the Mose Mann, Sutliff and Hills Siding bridges. (Hills Siding was changed to simply the Hills Bridge by the BCR&N Railroad in 1901.)
Iowa City’s Commercial Club teamed up with Professor Bohumil Shimek of the Iowa State Conservation Association in 1919 to look for state park sites along the Iowa River. They decided a tract near North Liberty would work well.
Construction of a dam formed Lake Macbride in 1934, with an accompanying state park. The Mehaffey Bridge was a key route for visitors and North Liberty residents who wanted to attend the park dedication in May.
Iowa River flooding was hard on the bridge, though especially in March 1937. When waters receded after a 14.65-foot crest, two bridge pilings had been destroyed.
The bridge was repaired and continued serving travelers until 1954, when it was included in a list of bridges and roads to be removed for the Coralville Lake. Johnson County officials signed a contract authorizing its removal.
Two years later, residents began to understand the repercussions of losing the bridge and formed the Save-the-Mehaffey Bridge Committee.
Despite those efforts, the bridge was ordered vacated on Dec. 8, 1958. Coralville Salvage Co. bid $750 for salvage rights and began removing the bridge on Feb. 10, 1959, dismantling the wooden floor and the steel framing simultaneously.
The reservoir water level was scheduled to be raised to the 680-foot level on July 1, 1959, a level that would cover the bridge site.
The save-the-bridge committee, though, got some help from Iowa Republican U.S. Rep. Fred Schwengel, who estimated the cost of a replacement bridge would be $500,000.
The Army Corps of Engineers also had changed its mind about how the cost of a new bridge would be paid, with the federal government share increasing from 50 percent to 80 percent.
Schwengel introduced a bill asking Congress to fund the new bridge.
A new bridge
In July, Col. E.M. Fry of the Corps of Engineers in Rock Island, Ill., refuted the initial cost estimate, saying a new bridge would cost “a little over $1 million.”
In 1962, the U.S. House of Representatives approved spending $40,000 to plan a new Mehaffey Bridge over Coralville Lake.
At the same time, a new committee, the Coralville Lake Citizens Committee, formed and proposed the new bridge be built near where the old Mose Mann bridge once stood. The Coralville Lake Committee was headed by Roy Gaddis, a former Cedar Rapids resident, who said building the bridge at that site would be cheaper.
Johnson County Engineer R.H. Justen disagreed and talked to the new committee about the work that already had gone into planning the new Mehaffey Bridge.
The new bridge was built 300 feet south of where the old Mehaffey Bridge had stood.
Work was to be completed by Nov. 30, 1965, but high water in the reservoir delayed construction and only two piers had been completed by January 1966. In June 1966, a Gazette photographer took progress pictures of the 544-foot-long, $1.2 million bridge as steel girders were put in place.
The five-span, steel stringer bridge opened with no fanfare on Oct. 27, 1966, 11 months behind schedule. Bridge committee members and representatives of the Johnson County supervisors and the Army Corps of Engineers were the only ones to show up for its opening.
The bridge would last 50 years.
After a near-decade-long effort to get federal funding to replace the deteriorating 1966 bridge, the next version of the Mehaffey Bridge was completed at a cost of $8.9 million in 2016.
It is a 40-foot-wide suspension bridge with cables encased in concrete in inverted “V” shapes. It also has an multi-use lane for cyclists and pedestrians.
This bridge, according to Assistant Johnson County Engineer Ed Bartels, should last for 50 to 100 years.