Traffic crossing the Mississippi River on one of three busy Quad Cities bridges got stopped late Wednesday when fire broke out. Rock Island Arsenal spokesperson Gale Smith says the small fire broke out about four P.M.
She says they’d been doing some welding on the Government Bridge, one of the three main spans crossing the Mississippi in the Quad Cities, and the oldest bridge. The bridge rotates on a center pivot, swinging 360-degrees to let barges and other riverboats go through Lock & Dam 15. Atop the bridge, there’s a small house where the bridge operator works.
Workers in that “swing span house” were doing some welding on Wednesday afternoon and they noticed some of the wooden planks were smoldering, so they called the Rock Island fire department out, and closed the bridge and the Davenport entrance to the Rock Island Arsenal, which is located on a small island in the middle of the river.
Fire crews put it out and left — until it flared up again about five P.M. They re-closed the bridge to stamp out the last sparks late in the day. While the fire apparently didn’t do major damage to the bridge or the control “house” high atop its beams, Smith says somebody had to go back in there to work the night shift.
Somebody was back in the house operating the bridge right after the first fire, since that’s when they noticed the smoke, and called in the fire department again. The swing-span house is manned 24 hours, seven days a week for most of the year.
In winter months there’s no operator up there, when the river’s closed to boat and barge traffic and the lock-and-dam isn’t operating. That’s normally January through March, depending on the weather.
Smith isn’t sure the job takes great courage, but says it does require patience, and a worker with other talents. She says it’d be someone who can take “increases in activity” during busy times, and also somebody who’s not afraid of heights. Smith explains ‘It’s pretty high up there.” The first bridge across the river there carried trains in the 1850s and it’s been rebuilt there at least twice.