Iowa DOT Cultural Resource Project Manager discusses historical aspects of proposed Black Hawk Bridge project

by Susan Cantine-Maxson

The Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) held an informational meeting at the Meehan Memorial Lansing Public Library Thursday, March 21 with people interested in the historical aspects of the proposed Black Hawk Bridge replacement/repair project. The purpose of this meeting was to share thoughts and ideas with Brennan Dolan, the Iowa DOT  Cultural Resource Project Manager for Districts 1 and 2, which includes Allamakee County.

Dolan described how the agencies involved in the project work to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act. Project Engineer Bryan Bradley and Cultural Resources Assistant Emily Randall were also in attendance. Dolan explained that some Iowa DOT projects can have adverse effects on historical properties (e.g. structures, districts, archaeological sites). Specifically, Dolan referenced the improvements currently  in the planning stages for the Black Hawk Bridge and what mitigation of historic resources for a project like the one in Lansing might consist of if or when those plans come to fruition.

It was explained that the Black Hawk Bridge was determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995 following the Iowa DOT’s statewide historic bridge survey. Its unique structure and history have been well documented by local and regional historians. It is one of the most photographed bridges on the Mississippi River. However, it was also noted that there are very few bridges left on the river that have not been replaced by new structures. Dolan’s purpose at the March 21 meeting was to continue the DOT’s process of receiving comments about the project and to offer information about the process.

The initial law which created the National Register of Historic Places was an unintended consequence of President Dwight Eisenhower’s plan for the interstate system of highways for the country. As major highways were planned, mayors became increasingly alarmed about what their cities were losing as a result of these highway projects. A push to create a law, The National Historic Preservation Act,  which gave a voice to the historic and cultural aspects of communities, was passed in 1966 as a result of lobbying efforts of the National Council of Mayors, a group that is still active today. Interested parties may review the information about the process created by the 1966 legislation by searching for the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s “Citizen’s Guide to Historic Properties” on the internet.

Dolan further explained that the big questions that need to be answered for any project such as the replacement of a structure like the Black Hawk Bridge may include the following: What can be done if the impact of such a project is inevitable? How can the loss of  something that is historically significant and one of a kind be offset? What constitutes an adverse effect? Dolan said that historic bridges are one of the most frequently dealt with resource types when working on highway projects.

Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act sets up a review process that needs to be followed for each such project. The section defines “adverse effect” as the physical damage or destruction of a place, relocation, removal, alteration or significant change to a setting surrounding such a place.

There may be varying degrees to all of these effects.

The Iowa DOT meets with stakeholders who are concerned about the preservation of historic properties which may include the advisory council on the national level, state historic preservation officers, county historical societies, preservation commissions and communities in order to seek and consult on how the project will affect the historic site. Comments do make a difference. Dolan encouraged people to send letters and comments to the Iowa DOT because the public’s input does make a difference in the final decision process.

Another section of the law found at 36CRF800 which deals with protection of historic properties mentions (at section 800.6) that if mitigation is necessary on a project it should be the result of a resolution of adverse effects which ultimately leads to a memorandum of agreement among all the stakeholders that this is the best compromise that may be made for this project.

The Federal Highway Administration requires a minimum of alternatives to be considered for a bridge project like the one in Lansing. Those alternatives must include rehabilitation, a new alternative that doesn’t impact the existing structure, and a no-build option.

Dolan informed the group that there is an additional law (Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act [STURAA; Public Law 100-17] of 1987) that states that the Iowa DOT must offer to donate the bridge structure. Additionally, the law requires that the money the DOT would use for demolition be made available to the receiving entity (e.g. city, county, not-for-profit). The receiving entity must use the structure for transportation purposes such as a park, bike or pedestrian trails, plus the receiving entity must maintain the structure.

Dolan had no estimate as to the maintenance cost of the bridge but said those figures could be estimated from past Iowa DOT records. In a situation like this, a new bridge and the old Black Hawk Bridge would both cross the river but the Black Hawk Bridge would no longer be used for traffic. In addition, since the bridge ends up in Wisconsin, there would need to be some discussions with the Wisconsin DOT and historic associations.

The audience members had several questions about this aspect of the project. There are several issues with the current bridge which have been explained at previous meetings, including the width of the bridge, the age of the steel, the difficulty of the approach turn on the highway  for large semi-trucks and the width of the piers in the river that support the bridge because this turn in the river is the most difficult on the Mississippi. The U.S. Coast Guard has stated that the navigational width at Lansing (the distance between the piers) should be improved for barge traffic.

Dolan said that he has had discussions with the Coast Guard where the Coast Guard assured him that they could live with the current width of the piers of the old bridge if there was a guarantee that if an incident occurred which required the demolition of the old bridge that the receiving entity would have the money immediately available to demolish the bridge. The money could possibly be held in a trust.

Other possible types of mitigation might include video or printed documentation of the history of the bridge so that people could use the information for reference. Another idea which surfaced was creating a new bridge which was similar in design to the old bridge. The profile of the new bridge could be similar.

Dolan stressed that the Iowa DOT works hard to address historic properties concerns as part of its projects. He noted that they look to achieve a balance where communities do not have to choose between historic preservation and progress. He encouraged audience members to voice their comments, to think outside the box about possible uses for the old bridge if it stayed, and to help the Iowa DOT find a balance between history and improvements.

Another meeting was set for May 2 at 5:30 p.m. at the Meehan Memorial Lansing Public Library to discuss historical aspects of the project.  Additional meetings with environmental resource managers are also being arranged through the Friends of Pool 9. A large public meeting will be held in June. Dolan could not be certain but felt that the Black Hawk Bridge project would probably be on the five-year plan which will be presented this summer.

Dolan concluded the meeting by showing a video of the archaeological finds that were discovered with the completion of Highway 20 in northwest Iowa along the Little Sioux River as an example of mitigation for cultural resources. The documentation of those finds and a slight modification to the highway were the mitigations for that project. The video is available on YouTube by searching for the title: “Landscapes that Shape Us - Mitigation Efforts for U.S. 20”.

Dolan may be reached by phone at 515-239-1795 or by email at

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