Sioux City experienced the collapse of an interstate bridge across a river just once in its history. No one was injured. In fact, it happened in wee hours of the morning and no traffic was on the bridge at the time.
The date was April 2, 1962. The bridge was on the northbound side of Interstate 29 as it crossed the Big Sioux River, between Sioux City and Dakota Dunes. (Today it's the site of the Russell Christiansen Bridge.)
The bridge, 552 feet long and 30-feet wide, fell into the Big Sioux as it crested just after midnight on an icy, wintery kind of night. Heavy rains had forced the river out of its banks and turned it into a "turbulent stream," according to a Journal article published later that same day.
The "South Dakota end" fell into the river first, then the rest in a "spectacular collapse," the story said. Authorities closed both the northbound and southbound bridges until they could determine the cause of the failure.
Speculation at the time said its piers might have been damaged by ice jams. But Skip Meisner, who worked for the city street department and was on the scene that night, said Thursday that turned out not to be the cause.
"The flood waters were hitting the pier on that bridge at an angle it was not designed for," he said. "It created a scour on the downstream side." Meisner said he believes that the bridge was built correctly, but that the river changed direction slightly, enough to allow the scouring.
Today, the piers on the Christiansen bridge are "uni-directional," he said. It doesn't matter how the water hits them.
That bridge over the Big Sioux was constructed in 1958 at a cost of $200,000, but it wasn't opened until 1961, when I-29 was completed between Onawa, Iowa, and Junction City, S.D.
Big Sioux again
Ten years after Big Sioux took down the I-29 bridge, the bridge upstream from it -- the one crossing the river on Military Road, going into North Sioux City, was settling into the river. It never collapsed, but the city engineer, Bill Amundson, determined it was settling and needed to be replaced, Meisner said.
Until it could be replaced, the city put load limits on it. It later closed the bridge and installed a temporary floating bridge beside it while a new bridge was built.
The longest closing
The bridge problem Siouxlanders likely remember most happened in 1982.
After all the hoopla over closing the 85-year-old Combination Bridge and building and naming a new bridge in its place, Siouxland Veterans Memorial Bridge was dedicated on July 22, 1981. Just over nine months later, on May 6, 1982, it was closed.
It was 14 more months before traffic would again cross its span.
Iowa Department of Transportation workers Richard Bindner and Randy Murkin discovered a crack in one of the bridge's key stress-bearing girders during a routine washing of the bridge.
Murkin first found the 32-inch-long crack, which Bindner, who climbed up to verify the crack, remembered Thursday as being between two welds. He said the paint all around it was still green, but the crack itself showed a little rust, indicating it had been cracked for a while. The men called the IDOT with their discovery, he said.
Bindner said the crack was on the Sioux City side of the bridge above the lanes running south into South Sioux City. He said the Sioux City police raced up "like on TV" and blocked the bridge with their vehicles, he said.
Engineers worked frantically to reduce the danger that a cracked girder would give way and the bridge would collapse into the Missouri River and affect barge traffic, among other dangers. Eventually the cracking of the girder was attributed to a flaws in the steel.
Despite initial estimates of a week's work, it would be closed a long time, over a year.
Temporary supports were built beneath the bridge while new girders and 46 new steel plates were installed.
Downtown Sioux City merchants worried that South Sioux City residents would take the I-129 bridge across the river and, since it enters Iowa not far from Southern Hills Mall, would instead shop there.
But in fact, it was South Sioux City that took the brunt of the closing.
Operators of the Marina Inn, joined by a waitress there and W.A. Klinger, filed a $65 million lawsuit against the corporations that built the bridge, claiming the closing would cause a substantial loss of business.
Lance Hedquist, city administrator then and now, said Thursday that the bridge's closing had an immediate, devasting effect on the city. He said the Marina Inn, the Paddock, a popular restaurant and bar, and gas stations -- anything that relied on traffic flows, took hard hits. And several businesses closed shortly after the bridge closed.
An enterprising businesswoman in South Sioux City who had just opened a T-shirt shop, tried to turn the closing into a good thing; she sold T-shirts. One version proclaimed, "Veterans Bridge is Falling Down." Two other South Sioux business owners ran a contest to guess the official date the bridge would re-open, offering a $1,000 prize.
He said Nebraska Gov. Charlie Thone came to town the day after it closed and immediately recognized the impact. He helped the city get its first Community Development Block Grant. The city created its Community Development Agency to distribute the $400,000 grant in zero-interest loans that about 30 businesses used to pay employees and stay afloat.
The CDA remains a key to the city's economic development, he said.
Hedquist said the worst part was the mixed messages. One expert said during construction there was a problem with the steel. Another said there wasn't. Then came the see-sawing on repairs and reopening.
And, some experts said it could hold traffic, despite the cracked girders; other said it couldn't, Hedquist remembered. And, Journal archives show, at first repairs were to take six days, then months. And, it seemed, every time a re-opening date was announced, it was moved back.
The Veterans Memorial Bridge fully re-opened for traffic in May 1983.