Pontoon bridge photos discovered, identified

According to author Cecil Cook, this particular pontoon drawbridge was built and put into service in 1917.

Cook believes the railroad was installing a “winter bridge,” which closed the gap on the bridge when the pontoons were taken out of service and repaired during the winter.


By Tim Mason


Two years ago, a couple of my brothers and myself were sifting through one of our family’s homes in Marquette. This particular house had been constructed in the late 1800s by our great grandfather, Michael Connell. He was a first generation Irish-American who, like practically every family member, had been employed by the Milwaukee Railroad. In an old leather suitcase, in a closet in an upstairs bedroom, was the mementoes of one of his sons, our great uncle, Francis Michael Connell. Robert Connell, currently of McGregor, is his son. In the old suitcase, I discovered many family treasures, including “Frank’s” railroad switchman papers, some railroad employee passes, his U.S. Army World War I discharge documents and two small black and white photos. I recognized them as images of the old railroad pontoon bridge in Marquette. The pontoon bridge was first constructed in 1874. Over the next century, there would be at least three different configurations to the system. I contacted my friend Cecil Cook, of Des Moines, for his interpretation. He stated he had never seen these particular images.


From Cecil Cook:

Mr. Tim Mason recently discovered these two historic photos. He asked me if I could identify the subject and location.


The pontoon shown is unmistakably one of the Milwaukee Road’s Mississippi River drawbridges. This particular pontoon was built and put into service in 1917.


The Milwaukee Road had two pontoons on the line from Marquette  (formerly known as North McGregor) to Prairie du Chien. The Wisconsin channel span was bridge #378. The Iowa channel was bridge #380.


The railroad periodically took the pontoons out of service for repairs that could not be done while in operation. They were floated to Prairie du Chien and placed out of the river so that heavy repairs could be done. This was done at the close of the navigation season on the Mississippi River.


With the pontoon gone, the railroad was left with a huge gap. The usual practice was to close the gap with a pile trestle. The railroad tried to accomplish this without canceling trains. To get this done in about 12 hours was a monumental job. The whole installation was called a “winter bridge.” It had to be removed and the pontoon put back in place by the opening of navigation in the spring.


This is what I think is happening here. In my book, “Marquette, Biography of an Iowa Railroad Town,” references can be found regarding this in the winter of 1927, and again in 1931-32, on pages 197 and 200.

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