Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
COLUMBUS JUNCTION — The first step’s a doozy, but once you grab hold of the cables and steady yourself, you’re in control of how much swinging you do crossing this Louisa County town’s historic Swinging Bridge.
Of course, if other people are traversing the 262-foot wooden plank span, you’ll feel plenty of motion.
I grew up in southeast Iowa, and even though my Girl Scout day camps were held in Chautauqua Park on the other side of town, I went most of my life unaware of this major historic attraction.
As an adult, I would see the bridge sign as I drove past on Highway 92, but I wasn’t enticed to stop and explore. I blame this on being a little wary of bridges and short on time as I zipped on by. But then, my very first friend started posting on Facebook about the bridge being one of her favorite places to visit when she returns to her homeland.
So one lovely day last October, my brother and I made the bridge the focus of that week’s Sunday drive. The joint was jumping — literally and figuratively — as families with children crossed the bridge and young adults hiked the Possum Hollow Trail that starts in the roadside parking lot, goes under the bridge and after a steep incline, comes out on the other end of the bridge.
I grabbed hold for dear life, steadied myself, and inched my way across the bridge, stopping to take photos along the way (and praying I wouldn’t drop my phone). The reward is a little park on the other side, featuring metal sculptures, beautiful flowers, metal benches and picnic tables.
After relaxing and enjoying the view, I decided to head back, following a young couple with their toddler son. He wasn’t having any of it, and just a few steps in, sat right down and refused to move. So his dad scooped him up and carried him back across.
Now that the ravine has traded its autumn coat of many colors for some summer shimmer, the site is just as beautiful shrouded in greenery. But I’m still not going to hike the trail. I prefer seeing the flora, not the fauna that may live (or slither) below.
To begin your bridge experience, you first have to make your way to Columbus Junction. The town, bordered by the Iowa River on the east, lies along Highway 92, halfway between Highways 218 and 61. It’s about 59 miles south of Cedar Rapids and 36 miles south of Iowa City.
Look for the Swinging Bridge sign toward the west end of town, then pull into the parking lot. There, you can read up on the area’s Welsh history and nearby Long Creek settlement. One of Iowa’s oldest Welsh communities, it was established in 1843. By 1870, the settlement had 300 residents and multiple churches. The remaining Cambrian Welsh Cemetery and Salem Welsh Church are just a short drive west of Columbus Junction, off Highway 92.
The bridge parking lot also offers access to the Possum Hollow Trail. But if you’d rather go up than down, you can hop back in your car and drive up the steep street, park alongside the road, and make your way to the bridge entrance near the corner of Third and Elm streets.
If you’re at all squeamish, you might not want to read the sign outlining the bridge’s history until after you’ve made your crossings.
Also known as Lover’s Leap Bridge, the first one was built out of barrel staves and wire — in 1880 according to one sign, and 1886 according to another sign and the brochure. That was soon replaced by a bridge standing on wooden stilts but condemned for safety reasons in 1902. Two years later, a 160-foot swinging bridge was built, but in 1920, it collapsed with two people on it, who amazingly, were not injured.
The present bridge was built in 1920, spanning 262 feet, and in 1954, the flooring and steel cable were refurbished.
That’s what the sign will tell you. For a deeper dive into the bridge’s history, check out this Swinging Bridge brochure.
The brochure notes that in 2001, the bridge’s planks, side braces, side fencing and the pergola roof at the bridge’s entrance and the retaining wall were replaced.
So why build the bridge in the first place? It was a shortcut, created by Josiah Steward and friends in 1886, so people on the Fourth Street side of the ravine could cross to the Third Street side.
After the 1904 replacement collapsed in 1920 with the Tisor brothers onboard (the brochure says they were still standing when the bridge reached the bottom of the ravine), a local lawyer’s wife started a fundraising campaign to replace the bridge. Her efforts sparked a community campaign, raising $2,500 for a new bridge in 1922. Repairs and improvements have been ongoing ever since, featuring a $100 buy-a-plank campaign to help finance the work.
A centennial celebration is in the works for 2022, marking the 100th anniversary of the current bridge.
While in town
The rest of this hilly city is fun to explore, as well.
Home to a Tyson meat processing plant hard-hit by the onset of COVID-19, the immigrant worker heritage is reflected in the many Mexican eateries along Main Street, especially scenic with its river city architecture. Other dining options include 92 Roadhouse Bar & Grill and the drive-through or walk-up Dairy Sweet ice cream shop, both on the west side of town along Highway 92.
Columbus Junction also has been home to Simply Soothing, maker of the green-bottled Bug Soother toted to many outdoor events. Eco Lips recently purchased the business, and eventually will move the operation to Cedar Rapids.
On the east side of town lies the Louisa County Fairgrounds, with the annual county fair slated for July 27 to 31. Going to the fair was a highlight of my youth. On Friday nights, the track becomes a speedway, home to car races.
Being a river city, recreation opportunities abound on and near the Iowa River, including a boat access off Second Street/Highway 70, and golfers can hit Cedarcrest Country Club on the outskirts of town.
On the second Saturday in October, the city gives a nod to its namesake with a rousing Columbus Day celebration.
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