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Telling the story of Sutliff Bridge

KENT PARK– Did you know a ferry preceded the bridge at Sutliff? What do you know about the Cedar River? Would you believe Sutliff once consisted of more than just Baxa’s Tavern? What makes a truss bridge a “Parker” truss?
Answers to these questions and more may soon be found on interpretive panels placed along the historic Sutliff Bridge, currently undergoing reconstruction in the wake of the 2008 flood.
Sarah Brannaman, representing the Sutliff Bridge Authority (SBA) and Harry Graves, Johnson County Conservation Department Director, gave the county conservation board an update July 18 on a series of interpretive panels to be installed on the bridge. Graves and Brannaman have been working together for several months in a collaborative effort to design the panels and decide what should be placed upon them.
“Harry and I have put together what we believe is probably going to be the best information that we can provide the visitors about the bridge itself, the history of the surrounding area, interpretations about the Cedar River and how the early settlers crossed the river,” Brannaman said. The pair also has tried to conjure up from pictures what the ferry, which preceded the bridge, may have looked like. “That was actually kind of fun to look for some of those photos,” she said.
Brannaman said the SBA wanted input from the board, noting the joint effort between the SBA and the county to restore the bridge. “Before we go forward with providing information to Fossil Industries, we want your approval as well.”
The conservation board has agreed to maintain the bridge after its reconstruction with funding provided by the SBA. “They (SBA) have agreed to provide funding through the (Johnson County) community foundation and an endowment fund,” Graves said. “The (Johnson County) supervisors are supposed to provide a line item and put a number in there and presumably this will be a ‘new bridge’ and for the first few years it won’t need anything, but they need to get it established.” Graves also said it’s a great opportunity to interpret not only the bridge, but the river and the history of the whole area.
Brannaman said the SBA recently received a matching grant from Silos and Smokestacks (a non-profit organization affiliated with the National Park Service) for nearly $5,000. The SBA will provide funds for the panels. “So everything we’ll be dealing with Fossil Industries for will be covered either by the grant or through SBA funding that we’ve already raised,” Brannaman said.
The SBA has also asked the board of supervisors to approve making the bridge a designated site through Silos and Smokestacks. Brannaman said the action would put the bridge in the organization’s brochure and on its website, bringing it more national attention. The move would also potentially open the door to further grant money. Graves listed a few Johnson County sites which already have the designation.
“It’s good” he said. “One of their main themes is ‘farm to market,’ so certainly, one of the earliest farm to market efforts here.”
The tentative plan is for a panel on each side of the bridge with perhaps a couple in the middle. “If they access the bridge from either side they’ll be able to see the messages,” Brannaman said. The history that will be described peaked Grave’s interest.
“It’s really kind of amazing; it’s a classic example of political isolation,” he said, explaining that Sutliff had no crossing even though by the time of the Civil War, Johnson County was “the most bridged county in the state. But clear up to almost the turn of the 20th century, they were still using a ferry. It’s amazing to me that a ferry could still be in existence, but that was the only way they could get across.”
Graves said the people of Sutliff and Cedar Township had been clamoring for a bridge. The formation of a sand bar forced the issue as the ferry could no longer operate and the bridge was built. He added the Parker style was cutting edge technology for the time (1898) and built at a total cost of $12,000.
In contrast, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is spending nearly $2 million in taxpayer money to repair, upgrade and rebuild the bridge.
Interpretive panels were among the recommendations of a group of five University of Iowa graduate students who worked with the SBA and the conservation board in an effort to develop a sustainable, practical plan for the Sutliff Bridge and its surrounding area. A public input forum was held in April of 2011, and the group presented its findings to the board in June of last year. At the time, the possibility of using salvaged material from the destroyed east span was discussed, with lead engineer Tim McDermott of VJ Engineering noting there was enough useable material from the destroyed span for two informational signs or plaques, most likely one on either end.
Graves showed a sample of the panel material from Fossil Industries, the firm the SBA is working with for the job, and told the board signs from Fossil Industries have been placed at the Knight Pavilion in Kent Park as well as at the Chia Fen. Rather than steel or iron, the material is a polycarbonate that Fossil Industries claims is ultraviolet (UV) ray resistant. However, Graves has noticed some slight fading on one sign after about a year in service. He wasn’t overly surprised however.
“With the brutality of the kind of sun we’ve had, it’s faded all of us.” The material is vandal resistant, but he acknowledged nothing is vandal proof. “Otherwise,” he said, “they take a beating. This is the best thing I’ve found on the market.”
No formal action was taken by the conservation board as the presentation was primarily to inform and seek input. “I think that it’s been a collaborative effort and it’s going to work out pretty good,” Graves said.