Historic stone bridge crumbling faster than expected

Ely's Stone Bridge northwest of Monticello on Monday, Feb. 27, 2017. Bridge supporters say a large section of stone holding up a bridge embankment fell apart sometime last week. (Dave Franzman/KCRG-TV9)
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JONES COUNTY, Iowa (KCRG-TV9) -- A crumbling 123-year-old historic stone bridge in Jones County crumbled even more sometime last week.

Large stone chunks of Ely’s Stone Bridge northwest of Monticello apparently fell victim to the winter freeze-thaw cycle. And while the bridge is still safe for traffic, with new lower weight limits, supporters fear the latest damage could make their push for county leaders to restore rather than replace the old bridge a harder sell.

The bridge, built by a local stone mason in 1893, is one of only 10 Iowa stone bridges still in regular use for traffic.

Sharon Hasler, a 5th generation relative of the original builder, said seeing the large section crumble made her more determined than ever to push for a decision by county leaders about the long term fate of the bridge soon.

“I still feel it’s well worth saving. I want the decision made. Yes or no—decide. It’s can’t go on this way,” she said.

To help county leaders in Jones County decide, bridge engineering experts and students from the University of Colorado at Denver came to the bridge site last September for a free-to-the-county project to study the historical restoration options for the bridge.

Jones County Supervisors received the report last January but haven’t made any decisions yet.

Derek Snead, Jones County Engineer, said the stones that fell were part of an embankment wall and not part of the main bridge support structure itself. So the damage is superficial and can be repaired. But it would add to the price tag for any historic restoration which is likely to be far larger than the estimated $250-000-$300,000 cost of a modern box culvert bridge.

Snead said he won’t fix any parts of the bridge that collapsed until after supervisors decide what they want to do.

“If a new structure were to be put in this location, cost wise for the county, it makes more sense to just replace the structure,” Snead said.

Dorothy Rupp, another descendant of the original bridge builder, said she understands county leaders wanted to wait for the bridge engineering report. But now they it’s here, they need to decide.

“I understand reports take a while and we get impatient to get something done right now and it’s hard to wait,” Rupp said.

Bridge supporters say they don’t want to wait so long that it’s too late to even consider historic restoration.

Supervisors have set March 28th as the date for an informational meeting about the bridge and the engineering study. The county engineer says he expects some direction from board members have that meeting.