Getting across the Fourth Street tracks in Cedar Rapids is easier now than it was when there were a half dozen tracks side-by-side and no Interstate 380.
For decades, the A Avenue Viaduct was the only way to “go over” the trains.
Cedar Rapids Mayor Joshua Jacob “J.J.” Snouffer personally didn’t favor building the viaduct in 1891, when he told a reporter the viaduct would take traffic away from First Avenue, where Snouffer’s business was located.
But he acknowledged the viaduct would be an asset to the city and should be built.
But right-of-way negotiations with property owners proceeded slowly, and it wasn’t until January 1901 that all parties were in agreement.
It took another nine months before the city, taking advantage of the council’s instruction to build the viaduct from city coffers and later send the bill to the railroads, let the $37,000 contract for construction to the American Bridge Co. on Nov. 1.
The money, they said, was to come from the city’s bridge fund.
West side objections
That raised protests from west-side businessmen and residents who insisted the fund was meant to build bridges over waterways. They pointed out the Third Avenue Bridge was in dire need of replacing.
However, $7,000 had already had been used from the bridge fund to pay for condemnation proceedings related to the viaduct.
The disputes were settled at last in March 1902, when the railroad companies — the Illinois Central; Milwaukee Road; Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern Railway; and Northwestern — agreed to help pay for the viaduct.
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The contract was let March 10 by Northwestern, who hired contractors Snouffer & Ford.
1903 opening; Cave-ins
Opened to traffic on May 8, 1903, the 391-foot long viaduct over the Fourth Street tracks cost around $70,000 — $60,000 of it paid by the railroads.
Over the next 37 years, the street caved in three times at the foot of the viaduct at Third Street NE. The first two times, workers poured concrete into the hole to a depth of 15 feet.
When it happened the third time, in May 1941, Public Improvements Commissioner Dave Williams began investigating.
His crews found a natural cave 45 feet beneath the street that branched up 50 feet to the south and west. They also found a stream of water responsible for washing out previous repairs.
After blocking the cave entrances, Williams sealed the hole, allowed previous fill to wash out, and used concrete, sand, rocks and fill dirt to close the shaft to the street level.
That worked for another dozen years or so.
On June 1, 1954, an engineer’s report said the span was unsafe and it was closed to all traffic, vehicle and pedestrian.
Cedar Rapidians felt an immediate and unpleasant impact as approximately 13,000 cars were rerouted onto other streets that had rail crossings.
Approached by the City Council and Chamber of Commerce for assistance in replacing the viaduct, railroad officials insisted the viaduct was safe and then, curiously, offered to cover 50 percent of the replacement cost.
At a public meeting about whether to repair or replace the viaduct, public opinion was nearly unanimous in favoring repair, so that was approved.
In early August 1954, work began on what was to be a six-month repair.
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It didn’t take long for workers to discover the extent of the rust and corrosion plaguing the viaduct.
The repair required replacing old steel with new. The span’s brick and sand floor was removed, exposing rusted steel floor plates. Those plates, and the rusted support braces for the sidewalk, needed replacing.
The repair was done by Dec. 17. Mayor Milo Sedlacek and Public Improvements Commissioner W.W. Stolba removed the barricades at the west end of the bridge, got into Stolba’s car and led a line of vehicles to the east end to remove those barriers and let cars through.
An example of the value of the viaduct to the city was evident seven months later when a train stalled for half an hour, tying up traffic from First to 12th avenues. Cars were rerouted over the viaduct.
1974 New viaduct
In April 1969, the city again deemed the viaduct unsafe and prohibited vehicles weighing more than 4 tons from using it. It closed for temporary repairs in April 1970, this time for two weeks.
The city planned to remove the viaduct two or three years later when the Cedar Valley Freeway (I-380) opened.
Those plans changed when the state highway commission decided to replace the old two-lane viaduct with a four-lane viaduct that would tie into I-380.
For its part, the city widened A Avenue NE leading to the bridge.
While work was progressing on the new freeway, the old viaduct came down Jan. 23, 1974. Construction began immediately on the new four-lane viaduct. It opened on Nov. 25.
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