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Bye-bye, bridge

  • This is what the Charley Western Recreation Trail Bridge looked like before it collapsed into the Cedar River while it was being demolished in July 2018. The bridge was closed in April 2017 when parts of it were observed to be coming apart. Press file photo by Bob Steenson

  • This is what remained of the Charley Western Recreation Trail Bridge after it collapsed into the Cedar River Wednesday morning while a contractor was starting to remove parts of it. Press photo by Bob Steenson

  • The Charley Western Recreation Trail Bridge collapsed into the Cedar River Wednesday morning while a contractor was starting to remove parts of it. Press photo by Bob Steenson

  • The Charley Western Recreation Trail Bridge collapsed into the Cedar River in 2018 while a contractor was starting to remove parts of it. Press photo by Bob Steenson

  • The Charley Western Recreation Trail Bridge collapsed into the Cedar River in 2018 while a contractor was starting to remove parts of it. Press photo by Bob Steenson

  • The Charley Western Recreation Trail Bridge collapsed into the Cedar River Wednesday morning while a contractor was starting to remove parts of it. Press photo by Bob Steenson

  • The Charley Western Recreation Trail Bridge collapsed into the Cedar River in July 2018 while a contractor was starting to remove parts of it. Press file photo by Bob Steenson

By Bob Steenson, bsteenson@charlescitypress.com 

And it all came tumbling down.

Most of the Charley Western Recreation Trail Bridge suddenly crumbled into the Cedar River Wednesday morning, leaving slabs of concrete, rock and the remains of a center earthen pier visible above the water.

John Fallis, Charles City city engineer, said the collapse was unexpected.

Parts of the 108-year-old former railroad bridge had been noticed to be peeling away from the main structure in April 2017 and the bridge was closed then and slated for demolition this summer.

Work had begun demolishing the bridge Tuesday morning, when an excavator began working on the eastern riverbank abutment. A little more than 24 hours later most of the bridge deck and supporting structure suddenly splashed into the river.

Fallis said the contractor had planned to work from one end of the bridge to the other, building a causeway into the river to work from and taking the bridge down bit by bit.

“It just happened,” Fallis said Wednesday afternoon after having come back from the site. “We’re going to have to find out from the contractor what he’s going to be able to do.”

Fallis said the likely plan will be to continue as before, building a causeway — a raised foundation of riprap rock — into the river from which to work, but scooping up the materials from the river bottom instead of pulling them down from above.

The contracted completion date for demolition is Oct. 12, but Fallis didn’t know Wednesday whether the bridge collapse would make things go more quickly or more slowly than originally planned.

Randy Vandeventer, who owns R Campground which is located on the east side of the Cedar River just north of the Charley Western Recreation Trail, said he was trimming trees Wednesday morning on his property near the river.

He stopped for a while to watch the excavator work, he said, then thought to himself, “That’s going to take a long time,” and he went back to work on the trees.

A few minutes later, he said, he heard a crash and a splash and saw a wave rushing upstream.

He said the wave was about 3 feet high, and he pointed to a spot on the riverbank where it had washed over.

Vandeventer said he looked at his watch and the time was 11:35 a.m. when the bridge came down.

Nate Hoogeveen, river programs coordinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said he would encourage the city to get the materials cleaned up as soon as possible.

“It can be a matter of public safety,” Hoogeveen said. “I know with the whitewater course in Charles City there’s a lot more people on the river, there’s a lot more awareness of the Cedar there.

“I would certainly encourage the public to use caution after something like this has happened,” he said.

“The DNR can’t really literally close the river,” Hoogeveen said. “There’s no way you can enforce criminal trespass, and say that somebody was violating any sort of law. City officials might say it’s closed, or what have you. For public safety I think people should pay attention to that as a warning.”

He said he hopes the materials can be cleaned up as quickly as possible, but recognizes the safety of the construction workers needs to be consider, too.

“Working on a river isn’t always easy,” he said. “I know we’ve had very high water this season, so there are some practicalities involved. The construction workers need to be safe also, right? They can’t get swept away.”

Hoogeveen said the danger of anyone on or in the river near the fallen bridge isn’t just the possibility of running into something.

“When you have a flowing river, oftentimes when something like this happens you’ll have a tangle of debris,” he said. “What can happen is if an angler or a tuber or a paddler or whatever, if they get flipped and they’re out of their boat they can actually be pinned underwater.

“It’s a very serious situation. That moving water is going through the debris, but the person may be pinned and stuck under that debris. That’s why that’s so dangerous,” he said.

In this case there is also concrete with rebar in the water.

“The rebar is the stuff that you really need to look out for, because that is sticking out directionally and it could get caught on somebody’s clothes or lifejacket, and if they’re held under they’re probably not going to stand much of a chance,” Hoogeveen said.

The bridge was built in 1910, originally as a railroad bridge. Since then it has become a pedestrian and bicycle bridge, part of the Charley Western Recreation Trail. It was also an emergency vehicle route when flooding threatened the other two Charles City street bridges crossing the Cedar River.

The City Council has decided to replace the bridge with one still designed primarily for pedestrian and bicycle traffic, but capable of supporting emergency vehicles when needed.

Fallis said the city has a design contract with Calhoun-Burns and Associates Inc. to design a new bridge.

“Once the contractor is out there and has the causeway in place, we’ll get some borings in the river,” Fallis said. Information from the borings will help with the design of a replacement bridge.

The plan is to have a design and permits and be ready to go once funding is in place, he said.

The cost of the project is estimated at around $2 million. The city is seeking several grants and other funding to help with the expense. It has already received a commitment for almost $250,000 in federal Transportation Alternative Program (TAP) funds, and is applying for up to $900,000 in three other grants.

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