Des Moines Red Bridge

Pratt Through Truss Bridge over Des Moines River
Des Moines, Polk County, Iowa

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Name Des Moines Red Bridge
Built By Des Moines Union Railway
Contractor Detroit Bridge & Iron Works of Detroit
Currently Owned By City of Des Moines
Length 527 Feet Total, 155 Foot Main Spans
Width 1 Track
Height Above Ground 20 Feet (Estimated)
Type Pratt Through Truss and Girder
Date Built Opened 1891, Rebuilt 1945, Raised 2017
Traffic Count 0 Trains/day (Bridge is a trail)
Current Status Rails to Trails
Significance Regional Significance
The Des Moines Union Railway was incorporated in 1886 as a jointly owned union railroad between the Wabash St. Louis and Pacific Railroad, which reached Des Moines in 1882; and the Chicago, Milwaukee St. Paul & Pacific (Milwaukee Road) which reached Des Moines in 1882 as well.
It was owned 50/50 between the two railroads. Along with serving the Wabash and Milwaukee Road, it would later serve the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy along with the Chicago Great Western.
The line started at the huge junction near the capitol, where two Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific lines, the Wabash line, a Chicago Great Western line, a Chicago Burlington and Quincy as well as a Minneapolis & St Louis line crossed. It would then follow the Rock Island line west.
It crossed the Des Moines River just upstream from the Rock Island, went through downtown and entered a large yard area, where it could interchange with the CB&Q, M&STL, Milwaukee Road as well as the Rock Island.
The Milwaukee Road and Rock Island left this yard, going west.
There was a spur from this yard to the Chicago Great Western Bell Ave Yard. It had to cross the Raccoon River.
Ideally this was a highly successful railroad. And it was, throughout the first half of the 20th century.

The Wabash Railroad was swallowed up by the Norfolk and Western Railway on October 16th 1964. The N&W technically was leasing the Wabash.

The Wabash was fully destroyed in the fall of 1991, when the N&W purchased the railroad outright.

Although the N&W and the Southern Railroad had affiliations since 1982, they were completely merged in 1997, forming Norfolk Southern.
The N&W had complete control of the DMU since 1985, when the Milwaukee Road was having problems of their own.
The Milwaukee Road sold off their line into Des Moines in 1983 to the Chicago Northwestern, which later sold it to the Iowa Interstate Railroad, who had purchased much of the Rock Island line across Iowa from Council Bluffs, IA to Rock Island, IL in 1984.
They sold off their half of the Des Moines Union Railway to Norfolk Western in 1985. Both the CB&Q and M&STL lines over the Des Moines River were removed in the 1970's.

When the Norfolk Southern was created, much of the DMU tracks were abandoned. The bridge over the Des Moines River was specifically abandoned.
Today, while the DMU still exists on paper, most of the trackage is now gone. Portions are now a trail, including the large bridge across the Des Moines River.

The name of this bridge, the Red Bridge, comes from one very simple fact. The entire 527' long structure is painted in a very bold red color, creating a very recognizable bridge.

The bridge is a landmark for the city of Des Moines, and is very well liked.
It has had a long history. It was first built in 1891, and contained three truss spans, not just the two. In 1945, a flatcar load shifted, striking the structure and causing significant damage to the easternmost truss.
Then some time in the 1940's, the bridge was extended on its west end, this time with a 45' I-Beam span that was built for 3 tracks, to allow spurs to come in. This went over an access road.
By the time the bridge was abandoned in 1997, as the newly created Norfolk Southern did not need the line. At this time, it had a 20' I-Beam, a 75' through plate girder, two 155' pin connected Pratt Trusses, a 70' steel girder and a 45' I-Beam span.
By 2004, when plans were being finalized to convert the bridge to a trail, the I-beam span was removed, the bridge stripped of its natural silver lead based paint and repainted bright red with a more environmentally friendly paint.
For the next two summers, work on fixing up the bridge took place. The span that was removed was replaced by a smaller I-beam span.
The bridge was inspected, stripped of it's rail tie deck and replaced with a steel deck and handrails, a very fancy way to convert the bridge. Between the two trusses, an overlook was also added.
As an added bonus, the bridge was installed with several LED lights, creating quite the sight at night too. Out of the five railroad bridges that crossed in downtown Des Moines, this one is one of two left. Next to this bridge is the Iowa Interstate Bridge, and even further downstream was the Chicago Great Western Bridge, which was removed in late 2012/early 2013.
The two other truss bridges, the Chicago Burlington & Quincy as well as the Minneapolis & St Louis Bridges were removed in the 1970's. These were located about a block downstream from the IAIS bridge.
This bridge officially opened to pedestrians in the summer of 2006. It became part of the Principal River Walkway, something that is hoped to connect Des Moines to surrounding areas, and even to other parts of the state. In 2012, the approaches to the bridge were reconstructed using concrete plazas, new facilities and the walkway on the bridge was raised several feet. This made zero effect to the historical integrity, and even enhanced the downtown area.
Part of this project was to raise the structure, to prevent flooding from severely demolishing it. It was again raised in 2017.

The author has ranked this bridge as regionally significant, because of the striking landmark status, as well as the dates of the trusses. In a town where many of the original bridges no longer exist, this bridge stands out as a prime example of preservation done correctly.

The photo above is an overview. The photo below shows truss bracings. These photos were taken in 2015, prior to the reconstruction of the bridge; and 2017, after the reconstruction.

Des Moines River Railroad Bridges
Upstream Birdland Park Railroad Bridge
Downstream IAIS Des Moines River Bridge

Detail Photos

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