BENTON COUNTY — The historic bridge at Shellsburg’s front door is showing its age. The balustrades on the approaches are crumbling and some of the spindles are half gone. But it seems to be holding up pretty well for having reached the century mark.
Shellsburg was the third town site surveyed in Benton County in 1854. Its plat had 24 lots and two streets, Main and Pearl. One of its early pioneers, John Sells, wanted to name the town Shellsburg. Town officials compromised with the elderly man and decided on Shellsburg with a Sells Street.
The Shellsburg News in July 1871 reported that “a future, bright with prosperity, awaits Shellsburg, none will question who have investigated the location of the town and the vast natural resources surrounding it. Occupying one of the healthiest and finest town sites in Iowa, it is surrounded by as productive a farming country as the sun ever beams upon. Indeed it would be hard to pick a flaw in it, or discover where nature might have made an improvement.”
Shellsburg boasted a population of 550 in March 1915, when Benton County commissioners approved the construction of a new bridge to replace the Pearl Street bridge over Bear Creek. The cost of the project was estimated at $6,000.
Alfred Vinall and his five sons came from Davenport to build the 60-foot span with a 24-foot roadway and 20-foot wings on each end. Vinall also was the contractor for the Ralston Creek bridge on Kirkwood Avenue in Iowa City the following year.
Work on the bridge began in June, but it was a rainy summer. Wet weather kept the work from proceeding as planned. Hiring workers seemed an ongoing problem as well. Vinall advertised for laborers in The Gazette’s want ads for most of the summer.
The closed-spandrel cement arch bridge with cement spindles was completed in September 1915, but wasn’t yet ready for traffic. It took another month for the approaches to be filled in. After that, the road leading to the south end of the bridge had to be widened.
While that was happening, Shellsburg’s Booster Club considered whether to light the bridge with boulevard lights.
The annual Old Settlers’ Reunion in Shellsburg had to be canceled in 1915. When the festival resumed in 1916, The Gazette reported, “it was Shellsburg’s annual gala day, lacking but once in the last thirty years, and that when the progress of the town had resulted in a tearing up of the main streets to such an extent that heavy traffic was impossible. Today Shellsburg has a fine new concrete bridge to show for the wait and for her progressive spirit ...”
The bridge had served Shellsburg uneventfully for more than 80 years when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in June 1998.
Nowadays, the creek is often referred to as Wildcat Creek, although maps of the area still designate it as Bear Creek, and the bridge is known as the Sells Street Bridge.
An inspection in May 2012 rated the bridge deck as fair, but its superstructure and substructure merited poor ratings.
RAGBRAI passed over the bridge last Thursday. The town’s officials planned a birthday party for the bridge as part of their RAGBRAI celebration.
I visited with Lonnie Speckner of Speckner Insurance Agency in Shellsburg recently. Although he denies being the town historian, Speckner has a room in his office he calls the “Shellsburg Room.”
“It’s really just a storage space,” he says, but it is impressively filled with photos, documents and other memorabilia of the history of Shellsburg, some of which are reproduced here. His hope is that the publicity that comes with the RAGBRAI stop will carry over into funding for repairs to the century-old bridge.