From an economic standpoint, being positioned at the crossroads of two major interstate highways is a good thing, but for progress to make its move a lot of old familiar scenery needed to vanish. It was a bold plan, extensively altering the look of Council Bluffs on all four sides, claiming 156 homes and twelve business in phase one alone.
The western and eastern edges of the city experienced the transformation first, as the interchange that would accommodate a new downtown bridge and Interstate 29 claimed most of Playland Park. At about the same time across town Oak Street School (later St. Patrick’s), part of the Mount Loretto High School campus, Lainson Greenhouse, and all of the homes on the north side of Pierce Street between Oak and North Avenue had to go to make way for rerouting of U.S. Highway Six and Iowa 64, a path which eliminated two acute turns on Oak Street that were impossible for trucks and would allow for connection with the planned Interstate 80. Also lost was the Wilcox Mansion, a grand eighteen room, nineteenth century home with a third floor ballroom.
There was talk of a new downtown bridge even before the interstate highway plan. The Ak-Sar-Ben bridge was showing its age and was woefully too small for the traffic load. City councilman Joe Katelman complained that during rush hour it was faster to walk across the bridge than drive. Money for repairs was lacking, and even if finances were found this wouldn’t address the congestion issue, so a proposal to construct an interstate interchange at the riverside-- complete with new bridge at federal expense-- was welcomed with open arms by the city.
Initially the plan called for two bridges-- the new bridge would handle the interstate traffic with the Ar-Sar-Ben remaining connected to Broadway as a local thoroughfare. Eventually the design was amended to connect Broadway to the interstate bridge. In 1968 the Ak-Sar-Ben bridge was scrapped, except for its easternmost pier, which remains standing alone in the river today following an unrealized plan that preserved it to support a quasi-public building to be accessible from the Iowa shore by foot bridge.
To the south, Council Bluffs' airport was a casualty of the development. Sitting roughly where Walmart is today the airport's northeast/southwest runway would need to be shortened. This, plus a 45-foot-tall, three tier overpass 100 feet past the runway raised safety concerns, prompting the Civil Aeronautics Administration to recommend moving the airport. The latter wasn't easy. Relocating the airport to the south or north would block flight lanes of Offutt Air Force Base or interfere with Omaha air traffic. Despite a CAA suggestion to build the new airport at Treynor or Missouri Valley a suitable location east of Council Bluffs was found.
The highway project was completed in phases. For a few years southbound travelers could zip along Interstate 29 until reaching Council Bluffs, where they were routed down sixteenth street and through town to continue their journey via the hilly, two-lane U.S. 275 to Glenwood.
A dozen years after construction started the last phase was completed with completion of the Spring Street bridge. At the dedication ceremony the speaker likened the bridge opening to the driving of the golden spike 103 years earlier.
In addition to the major changes to the city’s landscape it’s worth noting that the concept of interstate highways was entirely foreign to most locals. The idea was championed by President Dwight Eisenhower and is generally thought to have been modeled after Germany’s Autobahn which he observed during his service overseas as a general in World War II. A good deal of newspaper space was devoted to explaining the things taken for granted today— divided highways, access ramps, minimum speed limits, and cloverleaf interchanges. While most of the project unfolded as intended not all of the ultra modern ideas came to fruition; the plan to removed stalled cars from traffic jams by hoisting them out from above with a helicopter has yet to become standard practice.
Richard Warner, D.D.S. Family Dentistry in Council Bluffs, Iowa
(Story by Dr. Richard Warner)
Ring Around the Bluffs-- 1960s/70s Interstate Highway System Changed Council Bluffs on All Sides
(Below) 1972 photo showing the merging of Interstates 29 and 80. Today Lewis Central High School is located on the site at the upper left of the picture and Mall of the Bluffs on the vacant land in the foreground.
The blue arrow points to where our dental office is today.
Traffic on southwest Iowa's transcontinental highway, US Route 6, took two ninety degree turns within one block at Oak Street. The sharp turns on a relatively narrow city street were impossible for trucks to negotiate without driving over the curb.
The Wilcox home was one of only two houses on East Pierce when built in 1903, predating Jennie Edmundson Hospital. The house had been vacant for a few years and the family was considering turning it into apartments when the highway commission acquired it.
The Spring Street Bridge was the last portion of the original metro interstate plan to be completed. The photo is looking west from Iowa in 1970 toward what today is Lauritzen Gardens and Kennewick Park .
The 1888 Douglas Street Bridge was purchased by the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben in 1936 with the promise they would eliminate tolls as soon as they recouped their costs. The bridge became free in 1947