(Foot)Notes on Iowa - Part 1, Day 8 - Reaching Horn's Ferry & the Red Rock Dam

Day 8 of Part 1 brought me to the Horn's Ferry Half-Bridge below the Red Rock Dam, the intended end point of the first part of my attempt to walk across Iowa following the route of the 1835 Iowa Dragoons. Thanks to favorable conditions the day prior, only about twelve miles stood between my previous endpoint and Horn's Ferry. Starting at the first First Fort Des Moines on the Mississippi River near Montrose, I walked roughly 130 miles on Part 1.

As with every day of Part 1, rain threatened before beginning to steadily fall during the first few miles. I wound my way down gravel roads, roughly following the river from a short distance. Eventually, I would my way to Marion County Highway T17. Throughout Part 1 I managed to avoid hard surface roads most of the time, but each time no other viable option presented itself I found myself trudging along the shoulder hoping motorists would see me and slow down. The rain intensified to a heavy drizzle as I continued on toward a return to gravel on 216th Place.

When I reached 216th, a sign erected by the Marion County Rural History Buffs (ww.ruralhistorybuffs.org) to commemorate the Wabash Railroad Bridge (1882) and Durham's Ferry (1849) caught my attention. According to the group, David Durham gained a license "to keep a ferry" starting in 1846, charging a quarter for a one or two horse wagon, or fifty cents for a four horse outfit. Operating during the 1849 California Gold Rush, the ferry served many eager Americans headed west. The town of Durham, laid out in 1875 as a station town by the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, celebrated the early ferry-master of the popular Des Moines River Crossing. Today, the bridge no longer functions, however, local residents recommend visiting the site at low water to see the wreckage of a steamboat poking above the river's surface.

Turning on to 216th place, the rain began to slacken and I knew the end of Part 1 only stood a few short miles away. Two signs, again put up by the Marion County Rural History Buffs, caught my attention. The first recognizes the town of Amsterdam. Plotted by nearby Pella's founder, Dominie Scholte, the community plan featured 490 blocks throughout sixty blocks. As with many towns encountered along my journey up the lower Des Moines, Amsterdam's greatest hopes of rising to commercial center status failed when riverboat traffic yielded to the rail. In contrast to other towns along the Des Moines, Amsterdam failed to gain residents due to flooding in 1851 and 1852. Residents instead chose to remain in Pella, a rapidly developing community located just a few miles north high above the river on the ridge between the Skunk and Des Moines followed by the Dragoons in 1835.

Just to the west of the Amsterdam sign stands a marker commemorating Lake Prairie. The body of water only exists in the historical past due to agricultural tiling and expansion of farming throughout the river bottom, however, when the first Euromerican settlers arrived in 1843 they encountered a large slough referred to as Lake Prairie or Mud Lake. The slough accommodated many types of wildlife, and today represents the incredible changes brought to Iowa by conversion from a tallgrass prairie biome to modern American agriculture.

Beyond the markers stood 218th Place, a road running down to the river and ultimately terminating in the Horn's Ferry Bridge. Growing up in the area, I often spent time at the bridge during my adolescent and teenage years. 130 miles into the journey, I knew the end stood only a few hundred yards away. Horn's Ferry represents one of the oldest Des Moines River crossings in Marion County, and operated as a ferry from 1865 to 1881.

When the Horn's Ferry Bridge opened in 1882 it stood as the first wagon bridge in the county over the Des Moines River. The bridge operated for 100 years before closing to traffic following the construction of the Red Rock Dam in 1982 offered travelers a modern alternative just a few hundred yards away. I often refer to the site as the Horn's Ferry Half-Bridge (or, during younger days simply 'the half-bridge'), due to the structure only extending out into the Des Moines River a short distance today. During the night of August 1, 1992, local residents awoke to loud sound of the bridge collapsing. The failure of a stone pier sent 300 feet of the bridge to the bottom of the Des Moines. Local officials also decided to remove additional sections of the bridge for safety reasons. Today, two Pratt pony trusses extend out into the river's main-channel from the west, with two additional trusses reaching out from the east.

Arriving at the bridge presented me with a variety of emotions. I walked out to the end of the second truss, the site of a recently installed bench commemorating a local couple. I rested and though about the patrons of the bench, Chuck and Bernice Vander Ploeg, two people I knew well as a youth from Central College sporting events and First Reformed Church. Chuck, in particular, meant a great deal to me, and his example of careful care for one's community continues to serve as an example I seek to emulate. I pictured his great big 1,000-watt smile as I sat on the bench, thinking over the previous eight days of walking from the Mississippi River to the Red Rock Dam.

Beyond the half-bridge and bench, the Red Rock Dam loomed. The dam holds back the massive Lake Red Rock reservoir which collects drainage from a 12,320 square-mile area in Iowa and Minnesota. The dam serves as a major check on the flooding potential of the Des Moines River, boasts a flood control pool measuring over 33 miles long, and covers 65,500 acres. The United States Army Corps of Engineers constructed the rolled earth-fill embankment and gravity concrete control section dam starting in 1960. Starting in 2014, the dam underwent retrofitting to allow for hydroelectric power generation. Initially costing $88 million, the dam took eight years to build and flooded out several towns and historically important landmarks.

The towns of Red Rock, Fifield, Cordova, Dunreath, Coalport, and Rousseau all sleep beneath the waters of the modern reservoir. Red Rock represents a historically significant location due to proximity to the "Red Rock Line," an important geographical boundary established by the United States Government as they moved the Sauk and Meskwaki out of Iowa during the 1840s. Each of the towns suffered from catastrophic flooding from at least 1851 onward, and the desire of the state to attempt to control the river ultimately led to the dam project which spelled their demise. Aside from Red Rock finding representation in the name of the reservoir, Fifield and Cordova serve as namesakes for specific recreation areas surrounding the lake.

Lake Red Rock also tried to swallow the 'Peace Tree,' an important historical location and local landmark. The ancient Sycamore tree, dated somewhere between 450-500 years old, stood defiantly above the surface of the reservoir following the flooding of it's surroundings by the Red Rock Dam. Serving as a notable landmark for Americans moving west, the location of a trading post, an important meeting point for Indigenous peoples, and an anchor point for the Red Rock Line established by the Sauk and Meskwaki Treaty of 1842 (for a much deeper dive on the history of the tree, please visit: https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a255372.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3tT7Lk_M6eZXAvV7z7-0QG_fhGrpJ8FTCc1apOiNEL_tMR3qO9LPWrRuY). In the summer of 2018, the tree finally succumbed to the pressures presented by centuries of standing (and decades of doing so underwater), and uprooted as water levels in the reservoir rose. The Red Rock Marina staff wrangled the tree to the "Mushroom Hunters' Lot" near the Marina where what remains of the tree awaits visitors today.

Before I departed the area to rest prior to Part 2, I stopped over at Dragoons Trail Historical Marker No. 5, another Daughters of the American Revolution marker of the outbound expedition route located just south of 'The Mile Long Bridge' and to the west of Elk Rock State Park. Additionally, I encountered my the first of the iconic "Dragoon Trail" marker signs along the Iowa Department of Transportation's driving route related to the 1835 Expedition. The route runs roughly two hundred miles between Lake Red Rock and Fort Dodge, encompassing a portion of the route taken by Kearney, Lea, and the rest of the expedition.

Although Part 1 finished, I still don't have a ton of concrete thoughts to communicate about the entirety of the project. I have continued to find awe in how much Iowa's environment changed between 1835 and today. I saw many communities resiliently fighting to preserve the past and persist in the present despite massive environmental challenges presented by the threat of flooding along the Des Moines River. I know I'll continue to develop my thoughts as I continue into the rest of the walk across Iowa, as well as when I head to the archives starting in July to start the hard historical work related to the project.

But, would you like to know the thing on Part 1 I found most surprising? The people. Those who took the time to roll down the window in order to ask a stranger in the rain if they might lend a helping hand. Individuals who sent along advice and information on what I should make sure not to miss. A chance encounter with a favorite high school teacher on the sidewalk of my hometown. Strangers asking me all sorts of questions about a crazy idea I decided to act on. Like I say in the video every day: "People make this project better." Thanks for following along on Part 1, I hope I'll see you out there somewhere on Part 2 in June.






214 views0 comments