LOOKBACK: Truck-crash collapse of Mower County 6 bridge over Cedar
June 1951 mishap caused no serious injuries but led to county scrambling for detour, bridge funds, lawsuit
In 1950, the Cedar River did not have a modern bridge crossing it along the more than 20 miles between Austin and St. Ansgar, Iowa.
That’s why the Mower County commissioners that year embarked on building a new crossing for County Road 5 over the Cedar in Lyle Township.
By late June 1951, the County 5 bridge was more than a month away from completion when a major mishap happened downstream on the County 6 bridge.
On the morning of June 30, 1951, two trucks met on the narrow County 6 bridge — built in 1888 — crossing the Cedar River, a few miles northwest of Lyle. This caused one of the drivers, who was hauling a load of gravel, to veer into the side of the steel-and-wood bridge.
County 6 then collapsed, bringing both trucks down with it into the waters of the Cedar.
Both drivers avoided serious injuries but the 192-foot bridge was a twisted mess, breaking a 3.5-mile stretch of road between Minnesota Highway 105 and U.S. 218 South.
State Line Road, running parallel to County Road 6 one mile south on the Minnesota-Iowa border, became the detour road with both County Roads 5 and 6 unavailable. Mower County made arrangements with the State of Iowa to use State Line as a detour and made improvements to it.
Soon after, Mower County officials announced they would replace the County 6 bridge within a year, barring any steel shortages, the Austin Daily Herald reported July 10, 1951.
The old County 6 bridge was 16 feet wide with a 10-ton limit and posted warnings for motorists about it being a narrow crossing. County officials planned to widen the crossing to 24 feet, add more length as well as straighten and regrade it.
Timing for the County 6 replacement, however, was difficult because the county was just finishing the replacement of the upstream County 5 bridge.
“Raising money to finance the new bridge is a big problem,” the Herald wrote on Aug. 11, 1951.
County 5 reopens; plans unveiled for County 6
Days later, the county opened the new County 5 bridge to traffic, offering a better connection between MN Hwy. 105 and U.S. 218. During the bridge’s construction, “two weak structures were used by motorists,” the Albert Lea Evening Tribune wrote Aug. 17, 1951.
Later that winter, the county commissioners passed a resolution requesting the State of Minnesota to help with the bridge replacement on County 6, a state-aid roadway. They wrote that the county “had the extreme misfortune” of its bridge being destroyed accidentally, leading to a “considerable economic and utility loss to the county,” the Herald wrote Feb. 25, 1952.
Two months later, the county was in civil court for a jury trial in its lawsuit against the two trucking companies involved with the crash on County 6. Both companies were hauling gravel for the same road project near Rose Creek at the time.
County officials contended that the crash was caused by negligence on the part of the two truck drivers — one who died before the trial unrelated to the crash, the Herald wrote April 22, 1952. The county estimated repairs to the bridge at about $25,000.
The other driver admitted in court that his loaded gravel truck hit the side of the bridge when he pulled over to make room for the other truck coming at him.
Attorneys argued over the bridge’s value at the time of the collapse and how much it had depreciated in value since its construction in 1888.
After various discussions, though, the attorneys came to a settlement with an unusual, additional aspect.
“It’s a new twist in jurisprudence — one that occurred in a hatchet-burying ceremony Tuesday afternoon following a $12,250 settlement of a suit brought by Mower County for damages in collapse of one of its bridges,” the Herald wrote April 23 1952.
During the trial, the county engineer had told the driver who crashed into the bridge that “when it was all over, they’d bury the hatchet,” the Herald wrote. The driver then bought a hatchet and charged its purchase to the county engineer.
After the settlement, the two went outside the courthouse for a newspaper photo op in which they buried a hatchet. The county engineer carried a shovel and the driver brought the hatchet. Mower County Sheriff Albert Reinartz was one of several witnesses.
‘A Real Bargain’
By late summer 1952, the county was estimating about $90,000 to replace the County 6 bridge by either November 1953 or June 1954.
That price tag, however, was significantly covered by state and federal funds, and the new bridge actually was completed by early October 1953. Overall, the project involved 125 tons of steel, 700 tons of concrete and more than 20,000 cubic yards of dirt moved.
Spanning 219 feet long, the three-span structure cost about $80,000, with another $10,000 in costs for removing the old bridge, grading the road and buying additional right-of-way, the Herald wrote Oct. 7, 1953.
Federal aid funded $40,000 of the cost, with the state chipping in $20,000 in a special allotment. The county also had another $12,500 from the two truck companies involved with its court settlement.
“So the total cost to the county was only $17,500 — a real bargain,” the Herald wrote.
In early October 1953, the Mower County commissioners — “quivering in the chill, fall air” — visited the new County 6 bridge for an informal ceremony and ribbon cutting to open the crossing to all traffic.
“It took two years, three months, six days and $90,000 to undo the damage done to a bridge by a truck,” the Herald wrote, “but the project finally was completed.”