Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Kate Shelley High Bridge

Before US30 existed the Lincoln Highway connected Boone Iowa to the rest of the world.

Before the Lincoln Highway existed, the Chicago and North Western Railway connected Boone to the rest of the world.

And to follow that connection west in the early years of the 1900's, you had to cross the Boone Viaduct, more commonly known as the Kate Shelley High Bridge in honor of a teenage girl that in 1881 braved a storm, and the dark, to cross the bridge (an earlier version on a different alignment) on foot in order to stop the passenger train and warn them that the next bridge, the one over Honey Creek, was out.

When it was built in 1901, 186 ft above the Des Moines River and 2685 ft long, the steel bridge was one of the highest and longest double-tracked bridges in the country.

That original bridge was in use for over 100 years, though sometimes reduced to 25MPH and a single train at a time despite the double-tracking, until a new concrete bridge was put into service in 2009.

Google Earth view of the two bridges side by side crossing the Des Moines River

The new bridge is a few feet higher than the original and a little longer, but nowadays there are higher and longer bridges around so it holds no records. But it is an operational improvement! The new bridge is also double tracked, but even wider than the old bridge for increased track spacing, and is rated for speeds up to 70 MPH with trains crossing both ways at the same time!

As I left Boone, heading west on E31, the original the Lincoln Highway, crossing the Des Moines River on a narrow but sturdy bridge with an abrupt hump in the middle to accommodate boats, there was little traffic. Not surprising since US30 is only a couple thousand feet to the south. But I had a destination in mind that required locating a gravel road with the grandiose name of J Avenue.

As soon as I turned north onto J the world behind me disappeared. This was one of the dustiest collections of roads of the trip!  Knowing it was useless, but trying anyway, I slowed to a crawl at each of the four, well spaced houses along the road, hoping to spare them my personally created dust storm.

My destination was that Kate Shelley High Bridge and these things are often difficult to get to, so I persevered, rattling on and raising a rooster-tail any testosterone driven speed-boater would have been proud of, except mine was a little drier. . .

Along the way I came to this somewhat rickety looking bridge (It actually looks better in the photo than it did in person. Bummer!) that popped up over the railroad tracks. I hadn't seen the tracks yet either, but take my word for it, they're down there in the weeds somewhere.

Google Earth view of the rickety bridge, but I came from the left and turned on the road heading off the bottom of the image so didn't partake of the bridge's thrills.

The small white sign posted right there on the brink of disaster promised the bridge would survive a load slightly more than twice my weight despite appearances to the contrary. I chose not to test that claim.

The Road Closed Ahead sign was a little worrisome too, but only a little since I was supposed to turn here and not actually cross that bridge anyway.

You might have to look hard, but there's a train out there!
But as soon as I made the turn I had another problem.

Here I was, carefully picking my way down to a railroad bridge, and there goes a train, heading for that very bridge!!  If you remember, I once had a chance to visit the Tulip Trestle in Indiana, but never did actually get to see a train up there.

Was I going to miss my chance again; by minutes this time??!!

So the race was on!!

I rattled down 208th street as fast as I could stand, (Sorry, but that just sounds wrong! Gravel roads should be named humble things things like Henderson Lane or Honey Creek Cuttoff, not number streets or lettered avenues.) dust be damned as I passed the one and only house out there.

At the T intersection I skidded into a left turn and shortly after that dropped over the edge on my way down towards the river and under the bridge.

They might be long distance, but by golly I was going to get at least some shots of a train on the bridge!!

From this angle you'd swear the train is on the old steel trestle, but not really, it's over there on the slightly higher, and much newer, like over 100 years newer, concrete bridge behind it.

I got this and the next 3 bridge shots after backing The Van onto solid ground once again and jumping out to run up the road on foot, which was faster than backing up to a spot wide enough to turn around.

With the train still rolling by overhead - but for how long? - I slipped under the bridge and tried to make for the river to get the money shot. But the closer I got to the river the worse the road got, and in my myopic obsession to get the shot I pushed right on past smart and reasonable and well into dumb and stupid before realizing what was going on.

Sure I have some pretty aggressive tires on the rear of The Van for roads like this, but there is a limit, and not too far behind where I'm standing in the photo above, which I took only after getting The Van back on solid ground, the road was basically gone!

For those not distracted by the train overhead there were plenty of signs of recent flooding. Signs I didn't really take note of until the road gently fell out from under me and I was suddenly driving in drifts of loose sand peppered with tortured debris!
Doing my Oh Shit! I've screwed the pooch now! version of rapid Lamaze breathing, I let The Van roll to a stop, something it was more than willing to do in the deep sand hiding a couple of jarring holes, though at an angle that brought to mind a bird with a broken wing.  Then, promising all sorts of things to any Deity that might be listening, (Oh crap! Did I just give my daughter away??) shifted into reverse and gingerly feathered the accelerator.

Man, am I glad I have those BFGoodrich Baja Champion All Terrain T/A's on the rear!! They're a little noisier at highway speeds, and they won't last as many miles as more normally shod tires, but I could have been in serious trouble there along the Des Moines River with wimpy stock street tires. (Back on solid gravel again! A quick check. Whew!! I didn't pee myself!  Now, where's that crowbar to pry my fingers off the steering wheel?)

It's always disappointing that in photos things,like this road, don't look as steep or rough as they really are.

Oh, and see that sign there on the left?? In my distracted state I didn't, but the other side clearly warns of Road Closed Ahead. Sure am glad no one will ever know what a dumbass stunt I pulled. . .

As for missing out on the train?  Well turns out I didn't need to worry about that. It was a very long train and going far less than the 70MPH speed limit, so I had plenty of time to capture it waddling and squealing its way across the bridge.

And those Road Closed Ahead signs?? You know, besides the road not actually being there.

DOT photo
It seems that the Wagon Wheel bridge fell into the river. This was an auto bridge just upriver from the railroad bridges which I think thought might make  a great photo-vantage point.

Since they're only going to remove enough wreckage to open the river back up to boat and float traffic and have no plans on actually replacing the bridge, I figured it wasn't worth waiting around for the next train. . .


  1. As usual great commentary as you push the envelope out a little further in your travels. I hope I never see a concrete structure next to the Tulip Trestle. I need to go out there and wait for the next train ... I've never seen one either on that trestle. BTW, good choice of tires on the back.

    1. Well, yeah - about that envelope - maybe it would be better for my heart-rate if we just left it sealed up a little more often.

      Unlike the street-wise Michelin's I put on the front, which have a 70k mile warranty, those AT's on the rear have no mileage warranty at all, but I consider them insurance.