116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Just a few miles outside of Monticello stands a rare example of 19th century Iowa architecture.
Built in 1893, Ely's Stone Bridge, which spans Wet Creek in Jones County, features three limestone arches - constructed without keystones. It's care has been passed down through generations of a family of skilled stonemasons.
But these days the bridge is showing its age.
Blocks of limestone have fallen off the structure, mortar has cracked and pavement added to the deck likely has hurt the condition of the bridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Derek Snead, Jones County engineer, said a recent investigation of the bridge, located northwest of Monticello on Hardscrabble Road, found deterioration of its limestone blocks and mortar.
'Over the course of the last quite-a-few years, the fascia - the stone on the outside of that bridge - is starting to deteriorate and fall off the structure,” Snead said. 'It was substantial enough to repair it that we want to look at all of our options, including possibly replacing the structure.”
Meanwhile, cement that has covered the bridge's stone deck since the county paved it about a decade ago only has increased damage to the county-owned structure.
'It's very tricky when you put a surface, whether concrete or asphalt, on top of a bridge. If there is any space for moisture to get in between the surface and the bridge, the freeze-thaw action over the course of the winter will start to deteriorate that,” Snead said. 'I do think that probably caused some of the damage.”
While the bridge needs work, Snead said it doesn't pose a risk to travelers.
A cost estimate puts bridge repairs at about $40,000 and it's likely the structure would require more work in the future, he said.
A replacement structure - which also comes with a life span of around 100 to 150 years - could cost upward of $260,000, Snead added.
A decision regarding the fate of the bridge has not been made, but Snead said the structure would be a very good candidate for replacement on the county's five-year road plan, which lays out recommended road and bridge projects for the county.
'We'll take a hard look at saving this structure - but in the end, safety and spending taxpayer money wisely is just as important to us as a bridge that's outdated and served its purpose,” Snead said.
‘That bridge can't breathe'
Sharon Hasler, who grew up four miles west of the bridge and has lived less than one mile north on Hardscrabble Road for the past five decades, said she would hate to see the bridge come down.
'I think the bridge has historic value, it should be saved,” Hasler said. 'Once it's gone, it's gone, you'll never get it back.”
Hasler also expressed concern over the damage caused by the county's paving of the bridge.
'In my opinion, when they paved that road, it speeded up the process of destroying it. That bridge can't breathe anymore,” she said.
Ely's Stone Bridge was built in 1893 by Monticello's Reuben Ely Sr. - Hasler's great-great-grandfather - and Reuben Ely Jr., according to the structure's National Register of Historic Places data sheet.
According to the register document, four generations of Ely Sr.'s descendants, all skilled in masonry, have been responsible for the bridge's repair and maintenance.
The roughly 60-foot bridge was added to the National Register in 1979.
While the majority of Iowa's bridges are made of wood, metal or concrete, Ely's Stone Bridge was constructed with limestone. The document states that the structure is the only stone bridge in Jones County, but it's arched design - which does not include keystones - also 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.
Mary Bennett, special collections coordinator with the State Historical Society of Iowa's Iowa City center, said bridge's such as Ely's are examples of 19th century engineering at its finest and should be preserved.
'It's a lost art, it's a tribute to the craftsmanship of the men who built this,” Bennett said. 'This type of structure, it's very rare to find a surviving example in Iowa.”
The bridge was listed as being in excellent condition in the 1979 document. But a combination of the elements, the structure's age and the county's paving of the bridge deck have county officials weighing the possibility of adding the bridge to the county's five-year road plan.
Despite being listed on the National Register, such a designation doesn't prevent the property owner - in this case Jones County - from demolishing the bridge.
County Engineer Snead said there are roughly 190 bridges in Jones County, which could include large box culverts, and the county tries to tackle one or two major bridge construction projects every year. Major projects typically cost more than $90,000, he said.
County staff won't make recommendations for new five-year road plan projects until this fall, and the Jones County Board of Supervisors will review and eventually vote on the plan next spring.
Joe Oswald, District 2 representative and chairman of the Jones County Board of Supervisors, said he doesn't intend to make any quick decisions regarding the fate of the bridge.
'It's on the radar, but I don't think there's been any real time spent on what possibly would take place for sure,” Oswald said. 'We're not going to railroad this thing through without discussion on it.”
An aging bridge infrastructure is commonplace across Iowa, according to a 2015 National Bridge Inventory report released earlier this year.
The report, which used Federal Highway Administration data, found that Iowa ranks first in terms of the total number of deficient bridges and third for the percentage of deficient bridges in a state's overall inventory.
Of Iowa's 24,242 bridges, 5,025 of them - or nearly 21 percent - are considered structurally deficient, according to the report.
Structurally deficient bridges aren't inherently unsafe, but possess elements such as the deck, superstructure or substructure that are in poor condition or worse.