No doubt about it, Iowa City is a river town. And today, there’s nothing more relaxing than a leisurely stroll along the Iowa River, taking in all the beauty of our fair city. But for the first twenty-five years of Iowa City’s existence (1839-1864), finding a way to get over that same beautiful river was quite the problem.
The first ferry to cross the Iowa River was built by Benjamin Miller, operating at the first white settlement in Johnson County – Napoleon. But by 1840, competition in the flatbed ferry business was starting to stir. On March 6, 1840, Andrew D. Stephen was granted a license to keep a ferry boat at the point where the “National Road” crossed the Iowa River (see red line on map below). But Mr. Stephens failed to establish a ferry in due time, so the license was given over to John D. Able on October 13, 1840, who, according to Iowa City historian Benjamin F. Shambaugh, established his ferry crossing “where the upper wagon bridge now crosses the river.”
While records show that John Able was “able” to get things off the ground (or, in the water, so to speak), apparently his last name was not appropriate, because…
As it turned out, Pleasant Arthur, who purchased John Able’s ferry business, gave it over to his son-in-law, Gilman Folsom, before he died in 1845.
There was hope for a toll bridge to be built in 1851, but the plan was vetoed by Iowa’s governor. Read more here.
In March 1853, Enos Metcalf received a license to build a toll bridge across the Iowa River but construction did not occur until several years later. In May 1853, Gilman Folsom, took out a similar license to build, and by 1854, Iowa City had its very first toll bridge located at the National Road crossing (the present-day Iowa Avenue bridge). At first, Folsom’s bridge was a pontoon (floating) bridge (see above) which was then replaced with a wooden structure in 1856. By that time, Enos Metcalf had finally built his own wooden toll bridge just south of the present day Burlington Street bridge. For more on this Folsom toll bridge story, click here.
The oldest “public” bridge in Iowa City, was approved at Burlington Street in 1859 and was completed in 1860. A wooden structure – like the toll bridges that preceded it – and poorly constructed, the bridge was wildly popular, putting the older “toll” bridges out of business. But disaster struck when the bridge partially collapsed in October 1863 as a herd of oxen panicked while crossing. With the toll bridges in disrepair, this left the citizens of Iowa City with no bridge to cross the river! Fortunately, businessman, Gilman Folsom, came to the rescue, re-opening his toll bridge until repairs could be done. Read more here.
In 1864, repairs were made on the original 1860 bridge, and the “second” Burlington Street Free Bridge (below) was reopened, this time part wood and part iron.
The “second” Burlington Street bridge was finally replaced with a new iron structure (see below) in 1871. “It is good the era of rotten wood bridges is passing away,” commented an Iowa City newspaper editor.
Around the turn of the century, Terrell’s mill dam – north of Iowa City – was dynamited and replaced (1905) with a new dam and water power plant further downstream, adjacent to the Burlington Street Bridge.
The “third” Burlington Street Bridge, built in 1871, was replaced by this concrete bridge (below) in 1915 and widened to four lanes in 1960.
This “fourth” Burlington Street Bridge that remains here today.
The original Mississippi & Missouri (M&M) Railroad Bridge crossing the Iowa River was a single-track deck truss – built circa 1860 – and is pictured in this 1868 bird’s eye map of Iowa City (bridge on the right). When the railroad came to town (1856), Iowa City was the “end of the line” for those wanting railroad access to the West. Not until four years later (1860) when M&M built this bridge could a train venture further west than the Iowa River.
Above are re-construction pics of the Rock Island Railroad Bridge in 1901, plus what the bridge looks like today. Click to read more about the five railways in Iowa City history.
Earlier, we mentioned the Folsom Toll Bridge – which was located at the foot of what is today Iowa Avenue. In the early 1850’s, would-be prospectors gathered here, at the foot of Iowa Avenue, in tents and wagons as they’d wait to ferry across the river on their way to California looking for gold.
By 1876, a new iron bridge replaced the long out-of-service Folsom bridge, and with it being the nation’s centennial year (1776-1876), this new bridge on Iowa Avenue was called the Centennial Bridge.
In 1916, a new steel bridge (below) replaced the Centennial Bridge, and is now simply called the Iowa Avenue Bridge.
The Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railroad was one of many interurban railroads in Iowa. Construction on the CRANDIC Bridge began in 1903, with passenger operations beginning on August 13, 1904. Highly popular until the automobile took over – the last passenger run was May 30, 1953 – the CRANDIC was an electric railway running up to 13 trains daily, with each trip taking 75 minutes. Read more here.
After the CRANDIC made its last passenger run in 1953, the rail line from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City was been used exclusively for freight traffic. The CRANDIC Bridge overpass on Iowa Avenue remains a huge headache for Iowa Citians with its very low “ceiling” height. Over the years, this 10.5′ underpass has taken a bite out of many a truck and bus whose drivers either forgot about the bridge or simply believed they could get through without a scratch! Ouch!
Click to read more about the five railways in Iowa City history.
Iowa City’s fifth bridge – the Ryerson – Benton Street – Bridge – is located just south of downtown near the site of the Ryerson Mill. At a meeting in December, 1901, the county supervisors decided to accept the bid of the American Bridge Company to erect an iron bridge at this point on the Iowa River, with the price being $10,450. The Ryerson Bridge opened in 1904.
In 1949, the Ryerson Bridge was replaced by a modern steel bridge and renamed the Benton Street Bridge, which in turn, in 1989, was demolished and replaced with a modern highway bridge. A historical marker nearby describes the bridge’s history…
In 1909, the Iowa River’s landscape changed with the construction of the Park Road Bridge, which for the first time directly linked the city on the eastern side of the river to the park on the west. Eventually this bridge provided easy access to the newly-opened Manville Heights area with electrified street cars running Iowa City park-goers to the west side of the river. Click here to read more about the new City Park that opened in 1906.
(M-0009) Street cars ran on the Park Road Bridge from 1910 until 1930, followed by city buses. Read more about the Iowa City Electric Railway here.
Between 1917 and 1930 little occurred along the Iowa River except for the completion of the innovative Burlington Street Bridge in 1915, replacing the 1860 steel arch bridge. During this time, the area along Riverside Drive north of Iowa Avenue consisted of abandoned quarries. Most of North Dubuque Street was much the same and the limekilns still operating near the Mayflower dorms.
In 1930, the Iowa Memorial Union Walking Bridge (above) was added. And within the last few years, as Iowa City recovered from our devastating 2008 flood, the Park Road Bridge has been re-built (below) in 2018. Beautiful additions to our growing collection of Iowa River bridges.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Iowa City scene, Think Iowa City website
One More River to Cross, Ruth A. Gallaher, Palimpsest – March 1927, Article 3
Iowa River Bridges, Bridge Hunter.com
Rock Island Railroad Bridge Over Iowa River – 1860, Irving Weber, Historical Stories About Iowa City – Volume 2, Article 114, 1975, pp. 2-4
Photos from: Finials – A View of Downtown Iowa City, Marybeth Slonneger, p 111
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