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A recycled flatcar bridge on the Grant Wood Trail

The process of acquiring, moving, and adapting a railroad flatcar for use as a trail bridge.

From Trail Connections newsletter of Linn County Trails Association

The Linn County Trails Association manages and supports the railtrail through the Jones County, Iowa, towns of Oxford Junction, Hale, Olin, Morley and Martelle.

The really big question that we have been confronted with this year is how to replace the missing bridge north of Paralta Road. To get help with this problem, we contacted Verne Haaland who willingly volunteered his services. Verne is a semi-retired consulting engineer who has had extensive experience with bridges.

photo of bridge

The completed flatcar bridge - click to enlarge (photo from Linn County Trails Association)


While discussing various bridge alternatives with Verne, Wes Portz came up with the idea of using a railroad flat car for a bridge. This idea seemed worth pursuing. Some old flat cars were known to be stored in a farm field east of Clarence. Some had been damaged in a wreck but Jim Wing and Wes were able to find one that looked OK for our purposes and that was available for purchase.

Another trip to Clarence was needed to get structural details of the underside of the flat car for Verne's information and analysis. Jim got this iinformation for Verne by wriggling around in the weeds under the flat car on his back for at least a half hour while calling out measurements for Verne to write down. this is probably not a normal part of the job description for LCTA presidents! Anyway, this allowed Verne to make a drawing of the flat car to get some assurance about the load capabilities of the railroad car structure.

photo of bridge

The completed approaches to the flat car bridge (photo by Keith Fletcher)


Separate discussions were then held with Dan Biechler of the Linn County Conservation Board, Steve Gannon, county engineer, and Mark Trumbauer of the county planning and zoning department. This allowed us to acquaint them with our plans since we still anticipate that Linn County will take over the GWT and we did not want to create a bridge that would be unacceptable to them if at all possible. Fortunately we got nothing but favorable responses from the various county officials that we met with.

Prior to all of these meetings, several work sessions had been held at the bridge site to clear the way for the future bridge. This included removing a large willow tree next to the center pier and digging layers of soil off the top of the bridge abutments. Because of the extreme heat, we typicically started about 7 a.m. and quit two or three hours later.

After having met with all the various county officials and having received concurrence with our plans, we still had the problem of moving the flat car from Clarence to our bridge site. This time it was Duane Coonrod of Coonrod Crane Company who was our Good Samaritan volunteer and agreed to move the flat car for us and then later place it in position over the creek on top of the abutments of the old bridge.

On Thursday, August 9, we showed Duane the bridge site and also the flat car, and he assured us that he coculd do the job. Much to our surprise he called late the next day and said he had the equipment and manning availalabe to move the railroad car to the bridge site by noon on Saturday! We weren't quite ready but told him to go ahead. There were six large stacks of tree branches on the right-of-way that would have to be moved to make way for moving the flat car in and setting it down on the ground at the bridge site. With some last minute volunteer help from Dick's Tree Service on Saturday morning, all the brush piles were cleared out and hauled away about an hour before the flat car arrived! The car body is 89 feet long, which will easily span the 70-foot distance between the bridge abutments.

A lot of the work related to the bridge needed to be done once the car was setting on the ground at the bridge site. Among the items we had to resolve were design and installation of suitable railings, choice of a wood or asphalt deck, putting a concrete cap on one of the abutments, and various other items. We obviously wanted to do as much work on the bridge as possible while it was still accessible and not hanging over the creek.

Our sincere thanks to the many volunteers both inside and outside our organization who have given real meaning to the motto on the back of some LCTA t-shirts: "WE MAKE TRAILS HAPPEN!"

The Grant Wood Trail became part of the Linn County Conservation park system in November 2005 when it was gifted to Linn County by the Linn County Trails Association. An abandoned railroad line, this trail is approximately 10 miles long in total length and encompasses approximately 100 acres. For morel information please contact the Conservation Office at (319) 892-6450 and see the Linn County Trails Association website.

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