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Sutliff Bridge

Sutliff's Ferry Bridge

Sutliff Bridge

Primary Photographer(s): Nathan Holth

Bridge Documented: August 10, 2013

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Facility Carried / Feature Intersected
Sutliff Road (CR-F14) Over Cedar River
Sutliff: Johnson County, Iowa: United States
Structure Type
Metal 11 Panel Pin-Connected Parker Through Truss, Fixed and Approach Spans: Wood Stringer (Multi-Beam), Fixed
Rehabilitation Date
Main Span Length
214.5 Feet (65.4 Meters)
Structure Length
833.0 Feet (253.9 Meters)
Roadway Width
16 Feet (4.88 Meters)
3 Main Span(s) and 9 Approach Span(s)
Inventory Number
Not Applicable

Historic Significance Rating (HSR)
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Bridge Documentation

View Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) Documentation For This Bridge

HAER Data Pages, PDF - HAER Original Plan Sheets, PDF

View A Presentation On The Rehabilitation of this Bridge

View A Report On The Rehabilitation of this Bridge

View The Official Website For The Sutliff BRidge

This impressive bridge was built by the Fair-Williams Bridge and Manufacturing Company of Ottumwa, Iowa and erected by J. R. Sheely and Company of Des Moines, Iowa who was the on-site contractor for the bridge. The engineer of the bridge was George W. Wynn of Iowa City, Iowa. The bridge consisted of three pin-connected Parker truss spans, plus some short approach spans. The bridge was the longest bridge in the county when completed. In 1984, the bridge was at risk for abandonment and demolition, and local residents grouped together to form an organization that could take ownership of the historic bridge and maintain it. A rather lucky bridge, this was a rare case where a bridge in a sparsely populated region enjoyed such strong support from the local community. Tragedy struck in 2008 when a flood washed away the easternmost span of the bridge. Fortunately however, the western two spans remained. With the assistance of FEMA money, the destroyed span was replaced with a new welded truss span that has the same shape and member positioning as the original bridge.

This bridge is greatly loved by the local community which continues to own and maintain the bridge. People from the nearby bar can spread outside onto this bridge where tables are present. It offers a relaxing and scenic view of the river. The original spans of this bridge are very beautiful with their graceful Parker truss designs. The bridge is an outstanding example of how a preserved historic bridge can become a focal point for a small community.

The modern truss bridge span is quite a spectacle and a useful teaching tool. Regarding this modern span, rarely has a bridge tried so hard to be a replica of a historic bridge while at the same time trying so hard to avoid the construction methods that define the bridge it is attempting to replicate. Usually when a historic truss bridge is replaced with a modern truss bridge nobody even bothers to try to make it look like the historic truss. Most engineers and contractors don't know how to replicate a historic truss, so they probably figure why even bother trying. In this case however, there was an attempt to make it look similar. The new span takes a Parker truss configuration, the number of panels are the same, and the lengths of the truss parts are all the same. At the same time the key design and construction features of the original bridge have been omitted. The bridge is not pin connected. All connections are welded. The vertical members have v-lacing on them, but the bars are all welded! In fact everything on the span is welded. No rivets were used. The consequences of replicating the dimensions of a bridge type but not the construction details is evident on this modern truss. Notably, many of the diagonal members, which should be in tension, are not under tension and flop around loosely on the bridge. This span is a useful teaching tool. People who wonder why HistoricBridges.org focuses so much on details and constantly discusses the importance of things like doing riveting in bridge restoration should visit this bridge and see which span is more pleasing looking... the original spans or the new spans. The new span has a surprisingly plain and unadorned appearance compared to the original spans. All those little rivets on the original spans make a huge difference in the overall visual appearance of the bridge. Similarly, the intricate connections of the original spans offer so much more to look at than the modern span.

What the modern span of this bridge proves is that it is either hard or downright impossible to create a replica of a historic truss bridge. The problem is that most engineering and construction firms are oblivious as to how to build a bridge like a historic pin-connected truss bridge. Imagine, here in the 21st Century and the digital age many engineers and contractors really have no idea how to build a bridge type that people managed to build in the horse and buggy era. So if you are working with a historic bridge that suffered a similar fate, what are your options to avoid getting a span like this? If you are set on replacing the missing span with a bridge that looks like the original span that was lost, than hire a firm that actually has experience working with historic truss bridges, and is able to do hot metal riveting. An example of such a firm is Bach Steel. Alternatively, you could seek out another historic bridge span of similar size that is available for relocation and reuse and move it to your bridge to fill in the missing span. While the relocated span would likely not be look the same as the original span, you would have a genuinely historic span, and you would be saving another bridge span from loss. Also, to do something like that is actually historically correct. Back in the days when bridges like this were built, it was common to replace a washed away span with an old truss span from another location.

Information and Findings From Iowa's Historic Bridge Inventory

Discussion of Bridge

The Sutliff Bridge spans the Cedar River in the small town of Sutliff, named after long-time resident Allen C. Sutliff. Dry crossings of the Cedar River at this location date to the establishment of the Allan Sutliff's Ferry Service in 1838. Sandbars eventually formed in the river, however, rendering the ferry inoperative, therefore forcing travelers to make a long detour in order to find a suitable crossing. Dissatisfied with this state of affairs, area residents petitioned county supervisors for a permanent structure at Sutliff. City officials finally voted in December 1896 to construct a steel bridge at the old ferry site. To design the bridge, the county turned to an engineer named G.W. Wynn who, it appears, had rather dubious credentials. Referring to Wynn, one Iowa City newspaper reported that the bridge builder's "work has been severely criticized by engineers of high standing." Fortunately, the Sutliff Bridge proved to be a sound structure. The county awarded the contract to erect the bridge to J.R. Sheely and Company of Des Moines on January 8, 1897. Completed for approximately $12,000 in April 1898, the bridge was the longest in the county at that time. Over a thousand people, responding to a local newspaper's request for "All hands to turn out and have a good time," gathered at the new bridge on a beautiful June morning that year for its opening day ceremonies and celebratory picnic. Many decades later, area residents again rallied around their beloved bridge when they worked together to raise money to purchase the Sutliff Bridge from Johnson County in 1984. Currently used as a pedestrian bridge in connection with a surrounding public park, the Sutliff Bridge retains an exceptionally high degree of both historical and structural integrity. It is an outstanding example of an uncommon early wagon truss design [adapted from Hybben, Hess and Crow-Dolby 1992].

Bridge Considered Historic By Survey: Yes


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