Alum fights, fundraises to save historic bridge

By Alyce Eaton

Heading south on Highway 146 out of Grinnell, before the exit for the town of New Sharon, is the Millgrove Access Wildlife Area. These hundreds of acres of prairie, savannah and wetlands are preserved for outdoor activities such as hiking and fishing and are open to the public. One thing that has not been preserved, though, is the bridge that provides the easiest access to these lands.

The McIntyre Bridge, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, after being closed to traffic but before its complete collapse. Photo contributed.

The McIntyre Bridge, sometimes called the McDowell Bridge, was built in 1883 and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1998. However, it’s been tough for it to stay on the Register because the bridge is no longer over the Skunk River and is, in fact, currently not in Iowa.

“The bridge is in pieces in Michigan, awaiting funding for restoration,” said Julie Bowers ’80.

Bowers has devoted many hours to the preservation of this historic bridge and is the executive director of the North Skunk River Greenbelt Association (NSRGA), a nonprofit dedicated to that very cause.

“We had to fight to keep it [on the Register] once the bridge fell into the river,” she said. “We had to prove that we still had 95% of the original fabric of the bridge. The piers are all still intact, that was a huge part because the rest is pretty much messed. But we’ll get her fixed.”

The McIntyre Bridge was closed to traffic in 1989, over 100 years after being built. It was damaged heavily by ice in early 2009.

“[That] September, the County Conservation Board voted to allocate no more resources to the bridge,” Bowers said. “In effect, they had it on the list to demolish it.”

Bowers, who is originally from Montezuma, had enjoyed many picnics and family gatherings at this bridge, which is why she was contacted about its damage.

“I got involved because of a phone call from a local saying, ‘Hey, they’re going to tear down your bridge, what’re you going to do about it?’ It’s not my bridge, but my family settled out here in the 1850s and we’ve kept going back there all those generations, so I was the one that got called,” Bowers said. “That was October 4, 2009. We gathered a group of friends together and begged the county to give us some time.”

After eight long months navigating county bureaucracy, and after the bridge completely fell into the river, the group was finally able to purchase it for one dollar. Formerly known as the Friends of the Skunk River Bridge, this group formed the beginnings of the NSRGA.

“We decided to make a nonprofit with a small board to affect the construction and to make it be nimble,” Bowers said “It’s not your typical nonprofit. … This is a construction project, and if you deal with it as a construction project, it’s really not that expensive. It can be done.”

The bridge will cost about $75,000 to fix and another $40,000 to reset. While Bowers and the NSRGA have received thousands of dollars in private donations, much of that had to be spent to extract the bridge, so they continue to fundraise.

Several musical groups, including Thankful Dirt out of Des Moines, have played benefit concerts for the bridge.

“We do a lot of music,” Bowers said. “It’s not a great return on investment, but it’s all we have right now. It’s hard to find the money.”

The other main way that Bowers is planning to finance the bridge is through grants. Bowers has applied for many small grants to cover different aspects of the renovation.

Even without full funding, the association is going forward with the rehabilitation in Michigan. Bach Steel is one of the companies that will be working on the bridge.

“We have collaborated with Bach Steel to start a group called Working Bridges that can go ahead and help other people in our position with historic bridges that need some help,” Bowers said. “These bridges came in a box—a railroad car. They’re like erector sets. If you know what you’re doing, you can take them apart and put them back together.”

Through Working Bridges, Bowers has travelled around the country to consult about bridges in situations similar to that of the McIntyre.
“Nobody stops in the middle of a concrete bridge to check out what it is,” said Bowers, “but these [historic bridges] really define a space and make you want to hang out.”

“My dad remembers helping his grandpa get cattle across the [McIntyre] bridge,” added a local woman. “It was the only way across back then.”
Bowers fully appreciates the oral history and traditions that go along with the bridge and surrounding area. She has applied to Grinnell College for a Wall Alumni Service Award with intentions to create an outdoor education center.

“Our goal is not to develop it, it’s to leave it rustic. There’s a blue heron rookery out there, there are eagles [and] raccoons,” Bowers said. “It has to be able to be mixed-use.”

The proposed facility would allow for people of all ages to learn about a variety of topics, including regional history, botany, bridge engineering and river hydrology. Education would be emphasized and an online forum for the publishing of related papers would be created.

“It’s not ever very busy. In the future, I hope to see school buses and people doing research there,” Bowers said. “I’m usually the only one out there, me and my dog.”

Bowers is an artist who has taken classes in architecture, but she admitted to knowing little about bridges when she started the project.

“[However], I have the ability to research, to write, to talk to people. It’s all about that,” she said. “This was not my life. It just became it. It is my life, completely; has been since October 4, 2009.”

Bowers, who was a Student Advisor in her time at the College, sees the NSRGA as a way of giving back to the community. Her family has lived in this area for generations, and her father built the President’s House where Raynard Kington and his family currently live.

“The fact is that I’m from this county, and I left for along time,” Bowers said. “I came back after 9/11. Giving back to the county with this education center feels really good. … This little acreage is really a jewel of the prairie.”

Anyone interested in helping with this project can contact Julie Bowers at jbowerz1@gmail.com or through the NSRGA website, skunkriverbridge.org.