Time Machine

Time Machine: 'The packinghouse bridge'

Piers from span could become part of 'The Sleeping Giant'

The packinghouse bridge crosses the Cedar River just below the sewage treatment plant in the upper right of this 1978 aerial photo. Gazette archive photo.
The packinghouse bridge crosses the Cedar River just below the sewage treatment plant in the upper right of this 1978 aerial photo. Gazette archive photo.
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LINN COUNTY — The Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern began as a pioneer enterprise.

The Cedar Rapids & St. Paul Railway was organized in 1865 by George Greene. The company hired the Cedar Valley Construction Co. to grade the road from Cedar Rapids to Vinton. By 1866 most of the Vinton road was graded, just as a new company, the Cedar Rapids & Burlington, was organized by John F. Ely to connect Burlington to St. Louis through Keokuk. Greene negotiated the consolidation of the two routes in 1868 into the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Minnesota railroad.

The company established headquarters in Cedar Rapids, with Greene as president and Ely as vice president and treasurer of BCR & M.

Lines had been built as far as St. Paul by 1872 and the BCR & M Milwaukee division was built in the fall of 1873. That division became the Decorah line on the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific, the line that ran through an area where Thomas M. Sinclair built his meat packing plant in 1871.

When it faced foreclosure in 1875, the BCR & M was sold to the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern, a company organized specifically to purchase the stock of the original railroad. With new money and some new blood injected into management, the BCR & N continued the company’s expansion, building $100,000 worth of round houses and shops at their rail yard north of Cedar Rapids. The company also spent $59,000 to build a headquarters office building at 411 First Ave. SE. Today it serves as the home of Skogman Realty.

Sinclair packing house workers who lived in a settlement called Stumptown on the opposite side of the river had lobbied for a long time for a walkway to be added to the BCR & N bridge, and finally, in 1895, the packinghouse’s chief engineer drew up a contract, sending two copies to city hall for the mayor to sign.

The agreement stipulated that the walkway be built by the railroad at the city’s expense, with the city responsible for its upkeep. If, after two years, the BCR & N thought the walkway interfered with their use of the bridge, the railroad could remove it.

The city finally agreed to the contract in March 1898.

The BCR & N became part of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific (later the Rock Island Railroad) in 1902.

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In October 1922, the bridge over the Cedar River below the Sinclair packing plant was rebuilt. A Gazette news story at the time said, “The bridge is practically a new one, and but little of the old material was used in its construction. The cost of the bridge is approximately $136,000.” All that was left to do on Oct. 12 was completion of the sidewalk. The Cedar Rapids Construction Co. was expected to finish that within a week.

From then on it gained the nickname, “the packinghouse bridge.”

When the Rock Island was liquidated in 1980, the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railroad (CRANDIC) took over the tracks, including the packinghouse bridge. Soon after that the bridge was abandoned. The coal that once arrived by rail to the Wilson & Co. plant now arrived in trucks.

The abandoned bridge began to deteriorate. Rusted beams and a walkway with most of its planks missing were an eyesore and a danger. The rail bed was covered with vegetation.

In 1994, a Rockwell engineer, Wes Popek, petitioned the city council to do something about the “public menace.” Popek had once crossed the foot bridge when he walked from his home in Stumptown on the west side to St. Wenceslaus School. The city bought out the 100 or so homeowners in Stumptown in 1936 to build a sewage treatment plant.

Popek maintained, “If the bridge ever fell, it would create a dam that would back up water in the downtown. Some of the debris could easily fall on boaters, and I’m sure there must be steel parts that have already fallen off in the river just waiting to rip a boat hull from stem to stern.”

Council member Don Thomas told him that the city had no immediate plans to do anything with the bridge, but said that the railroad right-of-way and the bridge could one day be used for a trail.

Nature finally took out two-thirds of the bridge in the Flood of 2008, leaving a twisted remnant on the east bank of the river and most of the bridge’s piers still standing in the water.

Those piers are now the focus of an effort to build a bridge and trail for walkers and bikers connecting New Bohemia with the Cedar River Trail. The new project is being called “The Sleeping Giant.”

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