Armchair Field Trip: Iowa's Stonehenge

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Have you ever wanted to speed across a bridge that’s half a mile long and 13 stories in the air, pretending you’re in Tron? Yeah, me too. Good news: the next time you’re in Madrid, Iowa, stop by the High Trestle Trail Bridge and you totally can.

But before we get to Tron, we have to go back a few years. Hundreds of years ago, pioneers dreaded the treacherous trip across the Des Moines River Valley. They had to ford the river, Oregon Trail-style; they didn’t always make it. Even when railroad tracks were finally laid in 1881, it was still not a trip you’d take with your feet up and a newspaper spread out in front of you. The curves were sharp and the valley walls were so steep that trains had to careen down one side at reckless speeds just to have enough oomph to get back up. There were enough crashes that in 1912, the railroad decided just to bypass the valley entirely and build a half-mile bridge across the whole thing. It got an update in 1973 when Union Pacific provided 22 concrete piers that would better withstand flooding. The new bridge was in use for just 30 years when UP decided to discontinue the route. Though the decking was removed and repurposed, the piers remained (at up to two million pounds each, they weren’t really budging). The surprisingly eerie sight of 22 concrete pillars supporting a ghost bridge across the river valley prompted many to call it “Iowa’s Stonehenge.”

Many abandoned rail routes across the country have been converted into bike trails, so the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation figured, hey, why not use this one to link up a couple of existing trails and provide some pretty spectacular views while we’re at it?

The project was finally completed last year after much fundraising, but this is no ordinary bridge - it’s an art installment. (Here’s where Tron comes in.) In a tribute to the old local mining industry, the twists and turns of the metal cribbing over the bridge combine with perspective to make it feel like you’re entering a mine shaft. It’s amazing in the daylight - and totally techno when the sun goes down and the blue lights embedded in the cribbing turn on. The bridge is bathed in this blue glow until midnight every night, so there's plenty of time for sci-fi cycling enthusiasts to pretend they're entering a vortex while hurtling a half-mile in the darkness.

Image via woodwardia.org

Just in case Tron wasn’t enough ‘80s flashback for you, there’s this: someone managed to profess their love for ‘80s WWF wrestler The Ultimate Warrior with graffiti down one pillar. That is a dedicated fan right there.

One more picture to give you an idea of the height:

Is there anything awesome and unexpected like this where you live?

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June 30, 2012 - 10:08pm
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