This steel bridge, built in 1898, is a key component of the downtown trail network and the Meredith Trail in particular. Reopening the bridge restores a better trail connection for many users, including residents of new housing south of ML King Parkway and for employees in the Riverpoint Business Park.
The bridge is steeped with historic importance. According to the Historic American Engineering Record at the Library of Congress, “…it consists of three pin-connected Pratt trusses and is a fine example of the steel urban truss in Iowa. Both its location and the contractor selected caused great controversy in the city. The contract dispute over the bridge was one of the most important court cases in Iowa over a bridge in the nineteenth century, one which revealed the bid-rigging that surrounded bridge contracts.”
To read more about this original connection for the south side of Des Moines, download the Bridge History pdf (142 KB). In 1998, this wagon bridge was listed on the National Historic Register.
The bridge opened up downtown Des Moines to what is now referred to the Southside of Des Moines and the Little Italy neighborhood surrounding St. Antony’s Catholic Church. If you have memories of walking across the bridge—or stories your ancestors passed along about using the bridge to get to a job or downtown shopping—we’d like to hear from you! Contact us.
A tip of the hat to local historian John Zeller, who is credited with digging up stacks of information in the early 1990s. John’s legwork paved the way for the eventual historic designation. He was invaluable in tracking down original blueprints and fascinating news articles for this site.
The restoration has been estimated at $2.3 million. Approximately $2 million has been raised or pledged, including a $500,000 state matching grant and $750,000 from the City of Des Moines.
This total doesn’t include plazas for one or more ends of the bridge that could explain the historical importance of the bridge, the Raccoon River rechanneling, and appropriate recognition for donors. Up to $50,000 has been pledged for an in-kind contribution toward building those plazas (not yet designed).
In 2014, Meredith Corporation made a generous in-kind donation ($100,000) for a bridge engineering study. Genesis Structures, a Kansas City-based structural consulting firm with expertise in bridge engineering and rehabilitation, completed the study.
Three bridge-building firms provided suggestions on how to reduce the rehabilitation costs and deliver the project at a lesser price. The City of Des Moines Engineering Department approved the Meredith plan estimated to be $2.3 million; the original rehabilitation cost was estimated at $3.5 million. After the city accepted the study, Genesis provided complete engineering documents for construction. The goal is to complete the bridge in the 2016 construction season.
The bridge rehabilitation is expected to be divided into three zones. Temporary platforms will be built beneath the deck and a few feet above the water level. Erecting platforms will avoid the extra cost of building cofferdams (diverting the Raccoon River channel with temporary dams).
Workers will repair and replace lower bridge sections from each platform. Timbers on the current deck will be removed and stored nearby. It is expected that many of the existing timbers of the 1996 deck (the current walking and biking surface) can be reused, saving time and dollars. Wood stringers (similar to floor joists) will be replaced as necessary.
While crews work beneath the deck, ironworkers will inspect, repair, and replace steel that has rusted or failed.
After the steel is repaired, the first section will be tented before the lead-based paint is removed by sandblasting. This project requires extra precautions to prevent the toxic paint dispersing into the air or the Raccoon River. Removal of the lead paint is one of the more expensive steps of the bridge restoration.
While painters prepare the first section, other workers will move onto a similar platform to the next section and repeat tasks. Ditto for the third and final section.
After the steel is sandblasted, primed and painted, the joists and timbers will be replaced.
The new bridge deck will be about 14 feet wide (most trails in the metro area are 10–12 feet wide) with four overlooks above the piers. The current deck is 25 feet wide; constructing a 14-feet-wide deck will reduce rehabilitation costs.
August 2015: Announce completion of fund-raising to Des Moines City Council
January 2016: Advertise for bids
February 2016: Des Moines City Council awards bridge contract
March-April 2016: Construction begins
Spring 2017: Reopen bridge
The City of Des Moines will award the bridge contract and oversee the bridge rehabilitation.
The proposed rehabilitation reduces the loads on the structure, but does not fully rehabilitate every component of the bridge. A definitive time period is difficult to estimate. One grant the city has received requires the city to maintain the bridge for at least 20 years.
All bridges need annual and ongoing maintenance—just like your home or any government-maintained road or building. Deferred maintenance—and this bridge experienced plenty over its 117-year history—is never a good plan.
There are redundant failure modes for this bridge design, although the bridge is and will remain “fracture critical.” Fracture critical means that failure of certain bridge members can cause partial or total collapse of the structure. The project will improve the condition of many critical bridge elements, but there are no guarantees for the longevity or usefulness of this 1898 bridge.
Of course there are no guarantees that a catastrophic flood (think recent Texas floods) could cause damage the structure, requiring additional repairs or compromising the bridge requiring it to be closed.
We know one thing for sure: Mother Nature always bats last!
Yes, pedestrians and bike riders will be the only people using this bridge—no vehicles except an occasional Parks and Recreation pickup on the bridge to replace lights and perform other maintenance tasks.
The live load—people or objects—on a bridge is actually higher for pedestrians than for vehicles. Here’s how engineers look at this: The curb weight of an average car is about 3,000 pounds. Add a driver and you have about 3,200 pounds. In the same space of an auto—roughly 9 feet by 16 feet— you could easily pack 24 runners or walkers—4,800 pounds, based on a 200-pound adult. So it’s not a stretch to say that during some events (a charity run or walk, for example), the live load on the bridge for walkers or runners could easily exceed that of cars.
Bottom line: There’s no way to rebuild this halfway.
The bridge restoration project will concentrate on the bridge only. Direct access to the bridge will continue to be the trail system. Improved access from the SW Fifth Street would be a separate project.
Discussions are already underway on how to improve access from the south end of SW Fifth (a dead-end street) to the bridge while addressing the galvanized barricade that currently blocks vehicles from driving on the bridge. Walking and biking access improvement will include working with the Corps of Engineers to construct access across the Corps-regulated levee.
If we exceed our $2.3 million funding goal, we will add plazas at one or both ends of the bridge and include panels that explain the historical significance of the bridge and include space for donor recognition. A $50,000 in-kind gift has already been pledged for the plazas.
If you stand on the south end of the bridge, look southeast to Graziano Brothers Italian Grocery (corner of South Union Street and Jackson Avenue) and get an idea of the original streets leading to the bridge. Yes, the Southside streets were laid out at a different angle from streets on the north side of the Raccoon.
But wait, there’s more!
If you’re interested in city history, there’s a fascinating story about how a new ½-mile channel for the Raccoon River was dredged in 1914. After a devastating flood in 1902-03 (shortly after this bridge opened) council members began talking about a new channel and levees for the Raccoon River (starting just downstream from the Jackson Bridge) and the Des Moines River confluence. In 1906, the council approved the engineering plan for a new channel; 200 homes were condemned to make room for the new channel.In December 1908, several numbered streets received new names. Here’s a map on how downtown Des Moines streets looked before the new channel was cut:
Contact us if you have more information about the new Raccoon River channel or photos of crews digging the new channel. The project must have created plenty of local attention.
Good question! Having different street names at each end of the bridge—SW Fifth Street and Jackson Avenue—adds to the confusion. We’ve uncovered news articles that referred to “Fifth Street Bridge over the ‘Coon.” When Jon Fussell, now a city engineer, came to work for Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel in 1977, the structure was called the SW Fifth Bridge.
On December 4, 1908, the Des Moines City Council approved an ordinance to rename Fifth Street, starting at the south Raccoon River bank, to Jackson Avenue. The 1906 map of downtown Des Moines above describes today’s Jackson Avenue as Fifth Street. Several other neighborhood streets were renamed at the same time.
Today, media and even city records began referring to the structure as the Jackson Street Bridge—the correct designation should be Jackson Avenue. Frances Graziano, president of Graziano Italian Grocery Store, reports that her dad and uncle always called it the Fifth Street Bridge—even though their family business was at Jackson Avenue and South Union.
How’s this for local color: Some people just call it the Green Bridge.
Today’s adults remember described the bridge crossing as scary; Rosemary Vito Pratt remembers raising her feet every time she rode the bus to St. Joseph’s Academy or her dad drove over the bridge—just for good luck.
So can we agree on one name? There’s no shortage of opinions.
In a word, no. The speculation is the original color of the bridge was either black or dark brown, as would have been standard for the late 1800s. As a child, Danny Biondi remembers biking across the reddish-brown bridge to watch freight trains roll through the downtown Rock Island station. In the 1970s, long-time residents recall the bridge was painted silver or aluminum.
When was it first painted green? No one we’ve spoken to has details. If you have knowledge, please send us an email with details.
The bridge rehabilitation plans include a top-notch good paint system. The entire bridge will be sandblasted inside a protective tent and properly prepared. A prime coat will be a zinc-rich urethane. The intermediate coat is a high-build epoxy and the topcoat will be an advanced polyurethane finish coat for UV protection with great color and gloss retention. The paint system should last for 20 years.
The green color of the bridge was the color of the bridge when it was recorded into the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. The same green color is proposed for the re-painting as submitted to the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). SHPO will have final determination of color for the proposed rehabilitation project.
Long-range plans, yes. But extending trails isn’t in the scope of this fund-raising effort.