We weren’t supposed to be there.
The old Fourth Avenue Bridge walkway was marked with warnings that it was unsafe. But to three girls, ages 10, 11 and 12, and their two teenage aunts, the prospect of crossing the rickety walkway over the Cedar River was a scary, exhilarating challenge.
It was also the quickest way to get from our westside apartment to downtown.
Just the year before, in March 1961, floodwaters came within inches of covering the bridge.
Its use as an interurban rail bridge was long past and the tracks had been removed. Only the pedestrian walkway was still in use.
BRIDGE CARRIED ELECTRIC RAILWAY
The Fourth Avenue Bridge was located in downtown Cedar Rapids where you would expect it to be — downstream from the other bridges that crossed the Cedar River and Municipal (or May’s) Island.
The bridge was originally owned by the Iowa Railway and Light Co., headed by Col. W.G. Dow, and carried the electric-powered, interurban railway cars between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.
The contract for the bridge was let in 1903. Because the Milwaukee side track along the riverbank was so low, the bridge had to be built 3 feet below the river’s high water mark.
As the bridge was being built, west-siders petitioned the city council, asking that a pedestrian walkway be added to the bridge.
CONSTRUCTION OF BRIDGE AND WALKWAY
Work began on the bridge — without the pedestrian walkway — on Nov. 14, 1903. Two huge barges were put into the Cedar River. From them, American Bridge Co. workers floated big steel cylinders into place, filled them with concrete and added heavy steel caps to form the bridge piers.
Workers laid track for the interurban electric line from First Street and Fourth Avenue West to Prospect Place, on a hill at 824 16th Ave. SW, in April. Then the bridge’s superstructure was added.
Construction was finished in May 1904, and the bridge became an attractive gathering place for both adults and children. Fishermen and children were often shooed away.
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When the Third Avenue Bridge was closed in 1911 hundreds of people began walking across the interurban bridge to get to their jobs, causing a hazardous situation for the interurban cars.
The solution was to add a walkway to the bridge, but because the bridge was privately owned, the city had to get permission.
In 1912, Dows promised the council the rail company would add the footbridge.
Iowa Railway and Light Co. Superintendent J.D. Wardle appeared before the council Feb. 7, 1913, with plans for the footbridge. Brackets would be attached to one side of the bridge to hold the sidewalk, which would be 4 or 5 feet wide. It would be protected by bridge girders on one side and by a galvanized pipe railing on the other.
By 1913, the walkway was in use. It also served as an observation platform for those who wanted to watch people swimming at the municipal bathing beach on the south end of May’s Island.
The low bed of the bridge didn’t become a problem until the Cedar River flooded in 1929, cresting within inches of the bridge. If the river had risen higher, the bridge might have dammed the river. The city loaded the bridge with full coal cars to add extra weight to keep it in place.
During flooding in 1933, coal cars again were used as ballast, while interurban passengers were bused to and from the interurban station.
On May 20, 1953, the rail and foot bridge was struck by a tornado, ripping the east end of the bridge from its pilings. That marked the end of passenger rail traffic on the bridge, now owned by CRANDIC (Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway Co.).
In 1961, following an inspection of city bridges by Streets Commissioner Woody Stolba and Sidewalk Inspector Robert Morrow, the Fourth Avenue Bridge, with its wood approaches seriously deteriorated, was listed as in need of immediate repair.
Two months later, during heavy flooding, the bridge was identified as a danger spot. The coal-car-as-ballast option was no longer available because the bridge’s rails had been removed. Officials prepared to dynamite the bridge if flood debris started backing up against it.
The bridge and walkway continued to deteriorate. It was eventually closed to even pedestrian traffic. The only part of it that spanned the river was the steam pipes.
Demolition of the bridge began on Dec. 27, 1966. It took about four weeks.
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