Should the Old Bridge Go?

                Do you remember that magical time when you were a teenager and you first had your driver’s license? You could just jump behind the wheel of your car and drive wherever and whenever you chose. Well, as long as it wasn’t your parent’s car, and you still obeyed their rules. But still, you didn’t have to rely on anyone to get around anymore.

                I, like most others of my generation, got my driver’s license when I was sixteen. At that time, I didn’t have a car of my own, but my parents allowed me to drive our Ford Tempo pretty much whenever I wanted. Maybe it was because my Mom hated that car with a fiery passion and she hoped I would crash the thing. I should ask her that one of these days… but I digress.

                Anyway, at that time, I had a friend that lived on the outskirts of Massillon, Iowa, a wide spot in the road north of Lowden. There were many days that Mom and I would take the half hour or so drive out there from our home in DeWitt to visit the family. During those visits, Mom would let my friend and I take the car out for drives.

                And drive we did. More than once we would drive all the way back to DeWitt to visit the comic shop there. One time we drove down to Tipton, Iowa, just because we could. We had a great time, and I got to see a lot of rural Iowa during those days.

                One day, I decided to take a turn down a narrow road that I’d never been on before. Now honestly, I can’t remember where I got on. But I do know that at one end that road crosses a very old bridge by a golf course called Wapsi Oaks. I do recall how narrow the road was, and there were no painted lines. Memory seems to whisper to me that we passed one other vehicle, and that I was a little afraid of going across the old bridge. I didn’t realize that on that day my friend and I had driven down some of the original expanse of the Lincoln Highway.

                In 1912, a man named Carl Fisher came up with the idea of a graveled highway that would stretch across the continent from coast to coast. While gravel may seem like an almost silly choice to us today, in those days most roads were made of dirt. During several different times of the year, they would transform into muddy quagmires that were virtually impassable.

                Over the next several years, Fisher’s dream would become a reality. Along with the help of Frank Sieberling, the president of Goodyear, the tire manufacturers, and Henry Joy, the president of the Packard Motor Car Company, a route was established between Times Square in New York City and San Francisco. It was also decided to name this new road the Lincoln Highway, in honor of President Abraham Lincoln.

                The highway would be the first transcontinental route that stretched across the United States. It would also become the first major concrete road in the nation. Not only could it take you across the county, but it could do so reliably year round, as well. I mean, you’re having a really bad day if your car sinks in concrete, right?

                Eventually, the government would give all highways and interstates a numbered designation. The history and the name of the Lincoln Highway would fade and eventually be largely forgotten.

                But in 1992, the Lincoln Highway Association, a group of concerned individuals across the county who were dedicated to the preservation of the route’s history, was formed. They did not want this important part in the history of United States travel to disappear altogether, and they have worked like hell to preserve it ever since.  

                And that brings us back to that old stretch of road and the bridge in Clinton County. You see, after all these years, the county and the state are trying to figure out what to do with it.

                Ultimately, what’s at stake is whether or not to tear down the bridge. On one hand, we’ll be losing one of the last remaining original sections of the Lincoln Highway in Iowa. On the other, it’s going to cost over a million dollars to keep that bridge open for use. So what to do?

                The Clinton County chapter of the Lincoln Highway Association has already weighed in on the issue, and they are, obviously, all for preserving the bridge and all it represents. Todd Kinney, Clinton County Engineer, is seemingly trying to look at the issue from the county’s standpoint.

                Apparently, if the bridge is conserved by barricading the road, there is still the issue of the cost of putting up the barrier to begin with, and the county may have to compensate people who use that route to get to their property. If the county does choose to repair it, then in addition to the cost of repairs and upkeep, Kinney is concerned that the permits required to perform the work may not be granted.

                He also says that the bridge, if left alone, will collapse on its own. He just doesn’t want the bridge to collapse while someone is driving across it. His goal is to close the bridge so that this doesn’t happen.

                And so there we have it. Do we tear it down? Do we block it off and allow it to rot into dust and twisted metal? Or do we repair it and preserve it? These are tough questions, with no easy answers.

                No matter what, the project is going to cost a lot of money, and it’s going to keep costing the county and the taxpayers of Clinton County money to keep it up, just like all the other roads in the nation. But it’s a fairly low traffic area, so are the repairs going to be make the effort worth it?

                Outside of all this, hovering in the background like an ominous shadow is the decision that the state of Iowa may make to turn the road into a four lane highway, which will take the bridge out of the right away of travel.

                Historically speaking, we will be losing one of the last remaining bridges of the original Lincoln Highway, as well as access to an original concrete stretch that passes through rural Iowa. By having that and preserving it, it would allow us to see how travel was in the early days of the 20th century and get a taste of life as it was, giving us a better appreciation and understanding of the past.

                Unfortunately, this has always been the state of historical preservation. One side wants to save the past, and the other side is thinking of progress and money. While it’s easy to make it a black and white issue, that’s not always the case. As are many things in life, there are deep shades of grey that run through this.

                Obviously, the past should be preserved and kept. But sometimes certain things, like roadways, have to make accommodations for the needs of modern people. While we may not be able to keep everything, is there a way that we can make a compromise, so that both sides get something out of the deal?

                There are too many questions, and some very, very tough answers. I’m afraid that no one is going to walk away from this entirely happy, and it makes me more than a little sad that the little bridge near Wheatland might not be there one day.

                But one thing that I have learned is to appreciate what I have while I still have it. Thanks to that bridge and that little stretch of road, I had the opportunity as a very young man to experience travel as some of my ancestors did, and because of that, I feel a little more kinship with them.

So one of these next days, I’d like to gather up my family and head up to Clinton County for a reunion with that bridge. I’m going to tell some stories and take a lot of pictures. Even if the county chooses not to preserve our past, it doesn’t mean that I can’t get up there and chip off a chunk for myself.

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