Sutliff Says Goodbye To Historic Bridge
The loss of a century old bridge, paved with wooden planks, isn't a blow to Johnson County's infrastructure. Traffic is flowing unimpeded at the new Sutliff bridge, built 25 years ago a quarter mile north of the unincorporated village.
But the old Sutliff Bridge was -- past tense, as the damage is probably beyond repair -- more than a relic. It was the very symbol of the close-knit town.
Sutliff sits in the far northeast corner of Johnson County, where the Cedar River takes a brief cut unto the county. The bridge was built in 1898 and replaced a ferry service that had become impractical due to a sandbar. The modern bridge was completed in 1983, and locals took over maintenance and preservation of the old bridge.
But little is left to preserve now.
"I don't think they can rebuild it," says the young waitress at Baxa's Sutliff Store and Tavern, sad but friendly as another set of gawking outsiders grabs a bite while surveying the town's loss. It's not that outsiders aren't welcomed; the bar has many regulars who bike up from Iowa City on weekends and take a mid-ride beer break.
The store sits at the east foot of the old bridge. It's a turn of the 19th century building, and the former site of the general store. Dollar bills signed by patrons completely wallpaper the ceiling, and the place is full on a Monday night with everyone from children shooting pool to their grandparents.
A framed poem on the wall recaps the history of the old bridge and the construction of the new:
Now fast forward with me please to about nineteen eighty four
because now the iron bridge can't do its job anymore
That bridge and its wooden planks are old and must go
so they built a new one up river, a quarter mile or so
Now we all know the story about how the old bridge was spared
to be enjoyed by others because somebody else cared...
Clearly this is the de facto community center, with a wide selection of bar food and no one worrying yet about the smoking ban that kicks in next week. One of the few signs of the 21st century is a small notice on the community bulletin board, mostly taken up with word of motorcycle rallies, that mentions the store's web site, sutliffbridge.com. The site shows the bridge in happier times.
"With so many people suffering such massive personal losses it might sound silly, but it is very difficult to express what the Sutliff Bridge meant to me," said Rod Sullivan, chair of the county Board of Supervisors. Sullivan grew up on a family farm just east of Sutliff. "I don't think the loss has really sunken in just yet."
Memorabilia of the bridge line the walls. A drawing of the bridge in its former glory carefully carved into a moose antler and a certificate noting the bridge's place on the National Registry of Historic Places have clearly been in place for ages.
The patrons are stoic, chatting about cleanup and rented storage units. But their eyes turn to a new batch of flood pictures taken by a Sutliff child. They show the flood in all its rage, pouring over the wooden plank deck, with debris the size of fully grown trees piling up on the north, upstream side just before the eastern half of the bridge was washed downstream.
The poem on the wall, written for a happier occasion, may now serve an an inadvertent epitaph. Its closing stanza:
And the spirit of the place, well, it always will remain
because seasoned old friendships, time cannot claim
So I hope you will agree, now that my story ends
You must do what it takes to keep old friends... friends.