Friday, February 13, 2009

Wind beneath my wings (but the eagles had their feet up)

So I thought I might do a little eagle-watching Monday, overlooking the fact that when the wind is gusting to 40 mph those intelligent raptors are going to be roosting in sheltered spots with their feet up, not out cavorting above the Des Moines River below Red Rock Dam within view of the Horn's Ferry Bridge observatory --- where I was hanging on for dear life.

Actually there were plenty of eagles around --- a few braving the wind way out of camera range downriver, but more just lolling on the ice above the dam doing nothing in particular, also out of camera range since stopping on the dam or the Highway 14 long bridge upstream and jumping out of the truck to take a photo is something the Army Corps of Engineers frowns on. Also a good way to cause an accident. But it was worth the trip anyway.

The Horn's Ferry Bridge, which is really just a stub of the bridge that was recycled into an observation platform after much of the structure collapsed into the river in 1992, probably is the best place in south central Iowa to eagle-watch. The Gladys Black ("Iowa's Bird Lady") Eagle Refuge is just across the river and the birds like this stretch of water below the dam that usually stays open in the winter because of runoff from Lake Red Rock.

The bridge is located on the north side of the river beside the Howell Station Recreation Area just slightly southwest of Pella, so parking's available. If you're coming off the dam from the south, take the first (and only) east-bound road off this stretch of blacktop a ways north and then turn right at the "T." Left will take you into Pella. If the bridge still functioned, this road would take you over it.

I really like the Howell Station area. It's pretty and uncrowded, right along the river and kind of a relief to see the Des Moines coming back to life after being buried for miles upstream under that big pond. The Volksweg (People's Path) trail comes down from Pella to this area, passes west through it, then climbs up and over to follow the north shore of the lake for several miles. So it's good biking and walking territory, too. There's a footbridge across the river here, too, with a couple of trail stubs on the south side that are fun to explore.

Red Rock's Eagle Day is set for March 7 this year in Pella and down here --- all free of charge. You can find more about that on the Corps of Engineers' Lake Red Rock Web site.

To save you the trouble of clicking and enlarging the plaque at the east end of the bridge describing it, here's the text:

Flowing northwest to southeast, the Des Moines River is Marion County's primary watercourse. A boon to agricultural development the river was also the county's principal impediment to travel. For 25 years after Marion County was organized, the only way to cross the river was by ferry. The first referendum to bridge the river came in 1865. It failed because of location disputes.

Horn's Ferry Bridge was completed in 1881 to form a critical link between Knoxville and Pella. As one of Iowa's most historically and technologically significant vehicular bridges, the importance cannot be overstated. It was Marion County's first wagon bridge over the Des Moines River and a pivotal link in the county's commercial and transportation network development.

After 101 years of service the bridge was closed to vehicular traffic in 1982 but remained open to pedestrians and bicyclists.

In the middle of the night on August 31, 1992, one of the stone piers collapsed and in a long, loud, agonizing groan, 300 feet of the bridge folded into the river. Additional spans were removed for safety reasons. The remainder of the bridge is maintained as an observation vantage point.

Horn's Ferry Bridge was a nine-span, iron/steel structure comprised of six 100-foot, pin-connected Pratt pony trusses, a 12-panel, pinned 200-foot Camelback through truss, a 140-foot, riveted Pratt through truss, and a 90-foot, riveted Warren pony truss. The wrought iron was rolled by Carnegie in Pittsburgh. Cost was $10,259.00.

The rest of the story, at least for those of us who remember this old bridge and its sisters upstream and downstrem in use, is what fun it used to be to cross them. They were, of course, one-lane --- designed for horses and wagons not motorized vehicles --- and quite long. So if you planned to cross, a significant pause was required before driving out onto the bridge because you sure as heck didn't want to meet someone in the middle and have to back off.

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