WINTERSET – On a quiet gravel road northeast of Winterset, a steady stream of locals and visitors took time out of their Easter weekend to stop and see the charred, skeletal remains of one of the area’s iconic covered bridges.
Madison County Sheriff’s Office received a report of a potential fire just before 6 a.m. Saturday morning. By the time emergency crews arrived on the scene, the Cedar Covered Bridge was engulfed in flames.
“It is just awful, I could not believe it happened for a second time,” said Heather Riley, director of the Madison County Chamber of Commerce. “We are such a small town and the covered bridges are a big part of our brand. They weren’t just bridges, it was like six additional family members for the community.”
The bridge did not have electricity or lighting source and there were no storms in the area Saturday morning for potential lightning strikes, so authorities are investigating the situation as arson.
The bridge is considered a total loss. Reconstruction costs have been estimated at more than $1 million.
Mindy Dresback, Winterset High School class of 1972, said she was heartbroken when she heard about the fire Saturday morning.
“I get mad and I get frustrated because I can’t understand why people do these things and destroy history,” Dresback said. “I have taken so many of our friends to that bridge ... I don’t understand how someone can do something like that and think it is OK.”
Riley said the Cedar Covered Bridge was her personal favorite because it was so close to town and the community often used the bridge as a backdrop for taking photos of seniors, engagements or family gatherings.
“I spent a lot of time in that area driving past it and I always thought it was a neat part of the community,” said Winterset High School senior Tim LaGrange. “If it was arson, it is sad that the selfish acts of one person ruined it for the community and everyone else that liked to visit.”
Formally known as the Casper Bridge, Cedar Covered Bridge was erected by H.P. Jones in 1883. It stretched 130 feet and was 13.7 feet wide. The original cost was about $2,965.
It originally sat over North River and carried traffic until 1920 when it was moved to the current location over Cedar Creek. It was bypassed by another bridge in 1964, but it remained open for traffic.
Cedar Covered Bridge was made popular on the cover of the international best-selling book “The Bridges of Madison County” by Robert Waller. The book was made into an award-winning movie in 1995, featuring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep.
Waller died in March.
On Sept. 3, 2002, the covered bridge was completely destroyed by arson. An exact replica was rebuilt in 2004 and reopened to traffic Aug. 23, 2004. The replica cost $772,824 and was completed by Herberger Construction Company.
They elected to not insure the six bridges because covered bridges were considered a high-risk structure. The annual cost would have been $100,000 for insurance on each bridge.
“I would love to see it rebuilt because it adds a lot of culture to the community and it is nice place for the community to go,” LaGrange said.
The last time Madison County lost one of the iconic covered bridges to arson was the McBride Bridge in 1983. The Hogback Bridge was also targeted by arsonists in September 2003, but it sustained minimal damage.
No arrests were ever made in connection to the 2002 arson case.
Anyone with information about the fire is asked to call the Madison County Sheriff’s Office at 515-462-3575.