Illinois Central Drawbridge
|Highways, Byways, And Bridge Photography
Missouri River Railroad Crossing
|• Structure ID:
|River Mile 618.3.
|• River Elevation:
|Canadian National Railroad.
|• Daily Traffic Count:
|0 Trains Per Day (Bridge Is Closed).
|• Bridge Type:
|Double Through Truss Swing Span.
|1,610 Feet (Estimated), 250 Foot Longest Span (Est).
|??? Feet, Two Tracks.
|• Navigation Channel Width:
|• Height Above Water:
|• Date Built:
|1893, Rebuilt 1908.
The Illinois Central Drawbridge located just north of downtown Omaha is one
of the most unique railroad bridges in North America. It features two
swing spans back to back, making it the only double swing railroad bridge
in America that I am personally aware of. Note that there are several double
swing bridges for highways. There is at least one other similar railroad
bridge over the Suez Canal in Egypt called the El Ferdan Railway Bridge,
which also has two swing spans back to back. The bridge in Egypt, however,
does not have a center pier, whereas the Illinois Central Drawbridge does
have a pier located where the two swing spans meet in the center of the
Missouri River. Historically, there was a railroad bridge connecting Duluth
and Superior, the Saint Louis Bay Bridge, which had two swing spans, but
the draw spans were located about 1,000 feet apart rather than being back
The bridge was built in 1893 as the East Omaha Bridge. Its original
design included a short trestle on the Iowa side of the river, a single
wrought iron swing span of 521 feet, then a long trestle on the Nebraska
side of the river. The Missouri River had sifted course to this location
in 1877, and it continued to adjust its course to the west after the East
Omaha Bridge opened. As a result, the navigation channel was becoming
increasingly shallow as more of the river current passed under the long
trestle on the Nebraska side of the river.
In the first years of the 20th century, it was clear that the river channel
was going to shift west of the swing span. As a result, a second swing
span was built in 1908 next to the trestle. The trestle was then
removed, leaving a bridge with two swing spans back to back. The 1908
swing span was built of steel, but was otherwise very similar to the 1893
swing span on the Iowa side of river, including being the same length.
The final bridge configuration features a 60 foot deck plate girder span on
the east side of the river, a 521 foot long iron swing span, a 521 foot
long steel swing span, then approximately 500 feet of deck plate girder
spans on the west side of the river.
The Inter State Bridge and Street Railway Company was incorporated on
November 28, 1890. The company was granted rights to build the bridge
over the Missouri River on February 13, 1891, by and act of Congress.
The company amended its name to Omaha Bridge and Terminal Railway Company
on September 19, 1892. A business permit was issued to the railroad
by the secretary of state of Iowa on May 25, 1893. The bridge first
opened to traffic in January, 1894. The bridge reconstruction was
approved by another act of Congress on May 23, 1902.
The Illinois Central Railroad was granted operating rights on the bridge
in 1899, and started running trains into Omaha in January of 1900. The
IC purchased a controlling interest in the Omaha Bridge and Terminal Railway
Company in 1902, and purchased the rest of the stock in 1903 to become
the sole owner. The IC merged with the Gulf, Mobile, and Ohio Railroad
on August 10, 1972, to become the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad. The
IGC. In 1988, the ICG spun off many of its branches and reverted its
name back to the Illinois Central. On February 11, 1998, the IC was
purchased by the Canadian National Railway, thus taking over ownership
of the Illinois Central Drawbridge.
The Illinois Central Drawbridge was built for two parallel railroad tracks.
The right of way was double-tracked on the Iowa side of river between the
bridge and a wye track junction one and one-quarter miles east of the
river. The Nebraska side shows no evidence of ever being double-tracked.
The Missouri River started to be channelized in the late 1940s and early
1950s when levees were built. The opening of the Gavin's Point Dam on the
Nebraska and South Dakota border in 1957 further regulated the river flow,
resulting in the river creating a deeper but narrower channel through
Omaha. The navigation channel settled down under the western side of
the Iowa span. The river flats area filled with silt such that half of
the Iowa span is over dry land.
The equipment room on the Iowa span burned in the 1970s. As a result, the
eastern swing span could no longer move under its own power. The bridge
operation was changed so that the bridge was in the closed position during
the winter (when the river was closed to navigation), and was then swung
open all summer (closing the bridge to rail traffic). A cable was attached
to a bulldozer to move the bridge. Local rail fans state that the bridge
has not been used since 1980, though some rail fans seem to remember the
bridge being used up until about 1991. I visited the site in the early
1990s, and the Iowa span was in the open position with large trees blocking
any possible movement of the span. The bridge remains that way today,
though many of the trees blocking the movement of the Iowa span were removed
when the area was cleaned up in early 2012 following the flood of 2011.
The rail lines on both sides of the river have been covered over with
gravel as the levees were reinforced (on the Nebraska side) and a drain
pipe was run along the tracks (on the Iowa side).
There was discussions about removing this bridge in the late 1980s. In
reviewing the situation, it was decided that it would be good to keep the
Illinois Central Drawbridge in place as a contingency in case something
happened to the nearby Union Pacific Missouri River Bridge. Given that
the Iowa span appears to be leaning over and hasn't been operated in years,
that seems like an unlikely scenario, especially since the UP has other
bridge over the Missouri River that could be used. There was also talk
of converting the structure into a bicycle bridge. While that would be
spectacular, the bicycle crossing was eventually built just down stream
as the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.
In a quirk of geography, the railroad tracks on the west side of the
Missouri River again cross into Iowa before arriving in downtown Omaha.
The Missouri River once had a large oxbow loop that took the river to
the west then north around the present day Eppley Airfield, through the
present day Carter Lake, and then back down towards Omaha. The river
changed course in 1877, taking a more direct path towards Omaha. This
left a section of Iowa remaining on the west side of the river. The
two states ended up in court, where the Supreme Court of the United
States ruled that while the middle of the Missouri River is the state
border, small changes in the river course did not change that border.
As a result, the land remained part of Iowa. The land was part of
Council Bluffs, but the city of Council Bluffs had no interest in
providing sewer and water in what it saw as Nebraska. As a result, the
area left Council Bluffs and incorporated as the city of Carter Lake.
The photo above is a view of the two swing spans of the Illinois Central
Drawbridge as seen from the Council Bluffs Levee on the Iowa side of the
river. The photo below is a closer view of the river crossing, with the
Iowa side span in front and the Nebraska span in the background.
These two photos are looking upstream to the northeast towards the swing
bridge. The vantage point is the riverfront trail in Omaha in front of
the Gallup building, which is located between the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian
Bridge and the River City Star dock. The photo above shows both the closed
Nebraska span and the open Iowa span. The photo below is centered on the
Nebraska span. Yes, that is a submarine on the far left side of the photo.
It is the Marlin, one of the smallest submarines built for the US Navy.
It was used mostly as a target ship between 1953 and 1973. She is part of
the military display at Freedom Park.
Council Bluffs has an excellent bicycle and hiking trail that runs along
the riverfront through most of the city. This trail runs only a few
hundred feet from the Illinois Central Drawbridge. The photo above
is looking north from the bicycle trail along the levee was it passes
the tracks leading to the east bridge abutment. A drain pipe has been
laid along the railroad right-of-way when the city was fighting to keep
the nearby Water Works from being flooded in the summer of 2011. Extensive
clean-up work was performed in this area after the flood. Workers built
a temporary road over the pipe to get access along the levee. The photo
below is looking south from the north side of the tracks.
The photo above is looking through the Iowa span towards Nebraska. Eppley
Airfield, the major airport in Omaha, is located on the far side of the
river. The photo below shows the trail leading down to the base of the
Iowa bridge span. The large trees located along the river bank in front
of the bridge suggests that this span has not been closed in many years.
These two photos are views of the east bridge abutment as seen from the
levee in Council Bluffs. The photo above is the downstream south side,
while the photo below is the upstream north side. This plate girder
structure is the only fixed bridge span on the Iowa side of the Missouri
River. It is approximately 60 feet long.
The photo above is looking east down the railroad right-of-way as seen from
the levee. One rail is visible, but the other rail is covered by the dirt
that was brought in to cover a large drainage pipe. The photo below is
looking northwest down the length of the fixed bridge span on the Iowa side
of the river. This shows that the bridge was built for two railroad
tracks. One track has long since been removed, with the drainage pipe
taking its place. Note that the pipe is chained down to the bridge stringers.
The photo above is a close view of the pier that supports the fixed bridge
span. The large pads are where the swing span would sit when it is in the
closed position. The photo below is the east bridge abutment. The presence
of modern concrete suggests that the abutment and pier were rebuilt since
the bridge was originally constructed.
The photo above is looking towards the riverbank from the levee. This is
a good view of the trees that have grown up where the Iowa span would
normally swing shut. In fact, the trees were even larger in the mid-2000s.
They were cut down and cleared at one point, but have already started to
grow back. The area on the south side of the bridge was again cleared
in early 2012 as part of the flood clean-up. The photo below is looking
back at the fixed span was we walk down towards the river. This photo is
looking into the bright morning sun, so it is hard to see any detail.
The grass in this area is new given that this area was underwater during
the 2011 flood, and over a foot of silt was deposited.
These two photos are looking west across the Missouri River towards the
upstream face of the newer Nebraska span of the Illinois Central Drawbridge.
These two photos are additional views looking west across the Missouri
River towards the Nebraska span of the Illinois Central Drawbridge.
The photo above is looking directly towards the mid-river pier and
the small steel structure that remains in place on that pier.
The photo below is looking along the downstream south face of the
These two photos are views of the south end of the Iowa span of the
IC Drawbridge. The upper photo shows the newly planted grass where
large amounts of silt was cleaned up earlier in 2012. The photo below
is a closer view of the end of the Iowa span. This bridge span is
built from wrought iron and features intricate details in the ironwork.
The photo above is the central core of the Iowa span. This span is built
from two through truss spans that are joined over the pivot point. The
core is a tower that supports the beans that hold each of the two truss
span in place. Balancing the two spans over the pivot point makes the
bridge much easier to maintain and keep in balance. The photo below is
a closer view of a platform that once supported the mechanical equipment
that operated the bridge. The machine house burned in the 1970s.
The photo above is the top of the central core of the Iowa span. A tower
at the top of the bridge supports a power pole. This power pole can
swivel allowing the bridge to pivot while the electrical lines stay
in place. The photo below has the power pole from the east abutment in
the foreground showing how it lines up with the power pole on the Iowa
These two photos are views of the Iowa span truss. The photo above is
the side of the bridge deck, while the photo below is a close view of
a joint where several structural members meet. This is a pin connected
joint where a rod runs across the bridge, with large hex nuts on each
end to keep the rod from slipping out of place.
The photo above is the pier that supports the Iowa swing span. It is
built from cut stone. The bridge truss is supported by a series of
rollers, which also allows the bridge to pivot. This pier was once
located in the middle of the Missouri River, but the river has moved
to the west, leaving this pier sitting along the east riverbank. The
photo below is a closer view of the pivot mechanism. Equipment above
the bridge deck turned a vertical driveshaft. That shaft turns the
small gear on the left side of the photo, which engages a series of
teeth located on a ring just above the stonework. When the shaft
turns, the bridge pivots.
The photo above is a view of the center pier of the Iowa span as seen
from under the structure. It appears that the pier is tilting just
slightly towards the east, giving the bridge truss a pronounced lean.
The photo below is the underside of the north end of the bridge. Note
that much of the wood deck and some railroad ties are missing. That would
make this structure extremely dangerous to walk on.
These two photos are views of the underside of the bridge deck. Again,
we see that one entire railroad track appears to have been removed from
the bridge, allowing us to see blue sky through the frame members.
The photo above is the north end of the Iowa span. The photo below is
an old trestle bent that is laying in an area that was scoured out of
the riverbank during the recent flood. Despite the wood appearing to
be in good shape, this could be 100 years old. I don't see marks that
would indicate it was used as part of a railroad bridge, so I suspect
that it might have been part of a wing dam or other similar structure
designed to keep the river channel in place.