Interstate-74 bridge implosion was a QC event

A part of the Quad-Cities for nearly 90 years, the old bridge is disappearing

June 21, 2023 7:47 am

The old Interstate-74 bridge, in a photo taken in 2017. (Photo by Ed Tibbetts)

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Sunday was more than just Father’s Day in the Quad-Cities.

At about 7:30 a.m., the crack of explosions could be heard throughout the area as crews brought down the suspension cables and upper reaches of the towers to the Illinois-bound span of the old Interstate-74 bridge.

Crowds gathered with cameras and phones at the ready, but at a safe distance. Officials closed off the bike path, the river, even restricted air space around the old bridge. They also shut down traffic on the new and nearby Interstate-74 bridge as a precaution.

It’s rare that bridges are brought down in Iowa. And this bridge is a truly unique feature of this area. The Twin Bridges, for my money, have been the single most notable architectural symbol of the Quad-Cities metro area, certainly since I’ve lived here.

It’s true the tower of the old Davenport Bank & Trust has signified downtown Davenport and the Kone building has been the visual focal point of downtown Moline. But for the metro as whole, it’s been the Twin Bridges.

Designed by Modjeski and Masters, the Iowa-bound span was completed almost 90 years ago, in 1935. At the time, it was the only cross-river span in the area other than the Government Bridge, a swing span built in 1896 that runs from the Rock Island Arsenal to Davenport.

The bridge had a sidewalk and a toll booth. Passenger vehicles paid 15 cents apiece in 1935, with a discount for those who purchased a $1 roll of tickets. (The pedestrian toll was a nickel.)

Initially, there were no plans for a second bridge, but as this history of the bridge says, the span “played a key role in the development of the upstream Quad Cities communities of Bettendorf, Moline, and East Moline resulting in increased traffic over the bridge.”

This led to the construction of a second bridge, which was finished in 1959.

The new I-74 bridge. (Photo by Ed Tibbetts)

In the 1970s, the bridges were incorporated into the US interstate system. The toll booth and sidewalk were removed. And taken together, the I-74 bridge allowed for more space to travel.

But it was by no means spacious.

‘One of the worst’

For some people in the Quad-Cities, driving across the old bridge brought about a dose of claustrophobia. The bridge offered no shoulders and the railings on either side emphasized a closed-in experience. The speed limit was 50 mph, as I recall, but once in a while, you’d get a car – or truck! – that would blast past going at a higher rate of speed, prompting some white knuckles.

A lot of drivers weren’t bothered by any of this. Others avoided the bridge for that very reason. All of us just had to get used to it and adjust accordingly.

I remember in 2012, the old bridge drew some high-level scorn from US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who said, “this is one of the worst bridges I’ve ever seen in America.”

At the time, LaHood was in the area lobbying for new federal infrastructure spending, so I suspect some hyperbole was contained in his remarks. (LaHood said much the same thing about a bridge in New Hampshire, too.)

Nonetheless, that the country’s highest ranking transportation official was singling out our bridge as “one of the worst” in the nation was striking.

Roughly three decades ago, Quad-City area leaders began planning for a new bridge. Traffic volumes had increased, standards changed, and it was clear the old I-74 bridge was ripe for replacement.

It was a long road, and it took hundreds of millions of dollars and a lot of bistate and bipartisan political cooperation. But a year and a half ago, the new bridge, finally opened to traffic.

Some of us wondered if we’d ever see the day.

It’s an entirely different driving experience, too.

With wide lanes, and more of them – along with a pedestrian/cycling path – the new bridge is far superior to the old span. And it’s meant to last 100 years.

Which only leaves the disposal of the old bridge.

The demolition process has gone on for months now, and the implosion on Sunday was only the latest step. The detonation of towers on the Iowa-bound span is scheduled for later this summer.

Local media reports say that hundreds of people gathered for Sunday’s implosion, and as Grace Kinnicutt and Sarah Watson wrote in the Quad-City Times, “What took years to build took seconds to fall.”

Indeed, it was a blink-and-you’d-miss-it type of event.

Below is the Iowa Department of Transportation’s video of the implosion. The video is silent and appears to be slowed down, so it doesn’t carry the impact that was felt by those who watched and heard it, but it’s still impressive.

If you want to see better video, with sound, the best media coverage I’ve seen so far is on WQAD-TV’s YouTube site. The video there shows the implosion from multiple angles.

Below are a series of photos taken by Chris Beiderbecke, a Facebook friend and a fine photographer, who was willing to share his work with me.

Implosion of I-74 bridge on June 18, 2023. (Photo by Chris Beiderbecke)

(Photo by Chris Beiderbecke)

(Photo by Chris Beiderbecke)

Sunday’s implosion takes us a step closer to the eradication of the old bridge. Several months ago, I wrote a piece for the Iowa Capital Dispatch detailing how the demolition would take place and some of its complexities. The article includes an explanation why a small part of the old span will remain in the river. (It has to do with mussels.)

On Monday, the Times reported, crews were picking parts of steel out of the river.

The Iowa DOT tells me the lower parts of the towers still standing after the implosion will be “saw cut” and removed, while the piers will be taken out by jackhammering and additional explosions.

They say the explosives used on the remaining part of the bridge will be smaller than the ones used on Sunday. These blasts will be aimed at producing cracks in the concrete piers to better facilitate jackhammering.

I don’t think most people in the Quad-Cities who have driven across the new bridge miss the tight confines of the old span. And I’m certain those who travel through this area on the way to somewhere else don’t miss the challenges the out-of-date bridge posed to the unfamiliar. However, as someone who has called this place home since 1989, the idea of looking at our skyline without the Twin Bridges will require an adjustment.

I know I’m not alone, either. A lot of Quad-Citians grew up with this bridge. Nearly all of us have traveled it at one time or another. Some had family who built or maintained it.

It is, as somebody said to me not long ago, part of the shared experience of living in the Quad-Cities.

In a day when we tend to have less in common than we used to, notably in our how we see our world, this is no small thing. Even if that shared experience is just an old bridge made of steel and concrete.

To my tastes, the twin basket handle feature on the new Interstate-74 bridge, with its smooth lines and sloping shape, better fits our modern times than the starkness of the old green towers.

Still, the old I-74 bridge has served us well for a long time. Soon, it will be gone.

This column was originally published by Ed Tibbetts’ Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. It is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Ed Tibbetts
Ed Tibbetts

Ed Tibbetts, of Davenport, has covered politics, government and trends for more than three decades in the Quad-Cities. A former reporter and editorial page editor for the Quad-City Times, he now is a freelance journalist who publishes the Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. He is a member of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.