SUTLIFF– With cold ones in their hands and smiles on their faces, about 300 people gathered in Sutliff Friday afternoon to celebrate the return of history.
“This place matters and these people matter,” said Rod Sullivan, chair of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors.
Within moments, Sutliff Bridge Authority member Sarah Brannaman cut a bright red ribbon to officially mark the reopening of the 1898 bridge stretching over the Cedar River. Hundreds marched across the bridge, most for the first time since 12:30 p.m. Friday, June 13, 2008, when a devastating flood toppled one of the bridge’s three spans.
Brannaman pointed out that Friday marked the second time in the bridge’s 114-year history that the bridge was saved.
“We continue to fight for what they believe in,” Brannaman said.
She’s referring to her predecessors on the Sutliff Bridge Authority. In the early 1980s, when the new bridge over the Cedar was being completed within sight of the historic bridge, the plan was to tear down the old truss structure. (The new bridge was dedicated on a rainy day, Sept. 13, 1984.)
The people of Sutliff rallied, formed the Sutliff Bridge Authority, and convinced Johnson County leaders to turn over the bridge for $1. The SBA, as the non-profit is known, took care of the old structure.
But when the flood ripped off the span of the bridge near Baxa’s Sutliff Store and Tavern, the SBA soon learned that Federal Emergency management Agency (FEMA) funding couldn’t be used to restore it unless Johnson County took it back. Johnson County Supervisors approved that action about a year after the flood.
Although a bit controversial, the majority of county supervisors approved using FEMA dollars to repair the existing spans and replace the lost one, at a cost of about $1.6 million.
After design work by VJ Engineering of Coralville, Iowa Bridge and Culvert of Washington began the work this past January.
Friday marked the official completion of the work, although a few locals had already been out on the restored structure before then.
VJ Engineering’s Jim Jacobs called the bridge re-opening a “a red-letter day for everyone here.” He said the project is the first truss-style bridge built in Iowa in at least 60 years.
Johnson County Conservation Board director Harry Graves also lauded the historic moment. Sutliff, he said, was a throwback among river communities. People used a ferry to get across the river in Sutliff until the bridge was built in 1898. Most communities replaced ferries with bridges some 30 years before then.
Graves was among many who are pleased about the finished product of the rebuild.
“You stand back 20 rod and it’s like the bridge never left,” he said.
Emily Krall Feldman and her husband, John, agree.
Emily, now a teacher at Lisbon, grew up near the Sutliff store, right across from the bridge approach. She and John moved back there about three years ago.
When their son, Sawyer, now 4 1/2, was two months old, they watched the raging Cedar rip apart the bridge.
Four years later, they can look out their windows and see the same bridge Emily saw when she was a kid.
“It’s about memories for everybody,” John said. “It’s a landmark.”
Emily went out on the bridge at 10 o’clock at night a week or so before the official opening.
“I just sat in the middle of it,” she said, soaking in the view and memories.
Laura (Goolsby) and Harry Schubert say they were the last people to get married on the bridge – on Aug. 11, 2007 – before the flood. They had a plank engraved with their names, and it was later found in the river below.
“This is just a cool little community in the middle of nowhere … that’s why we got married here,” Harry said.
“Quite a day,” said Randy Howell, as he leaned on the bridge near the tavern he and his wife, Chris, have operated for nearly 11 years.
Randy’s grandparents owned the tavern and store when he was a kid, and he understands its history.
He knows some don’t agree with the rebuild. But he views it this way: The FEMA dollars were for the bridge, not other projects.
Even naysayers were at the ribbon cutting Friday, and a few of them made daily trips past the bridge to follow its progress.
A few days before the official opening, Howell watched a local family’s three kids race across the new bridge.
“Their legs took them as fast as they could,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Sullivan, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors chair, agrees. He grew up in Lisbon, and has fond memories of the Sutliff Bridge.
Looking around at people celebrating Friday, he said he knew it was the right decision to rebuild.
“Just look at everybody here,” he said.