The first time I saw it, I was in a friend's boat, passing under the Interstate 74 bridge.

Leaning my head back against the boat seat, I took a long look up at the underbelly of the bridge. That's when I saw the windows.

I wondered about them for a long time, figuring the windows must have something to do with the toll-taking operation that once occupied the center of the I-74. So I poked around, finding lots of pictures of the old toll booths but finding little about what appeared to be offices underneath them.

In late February, I hit pay dirt.

The yellowed news clip was in an envelope in the Quad-City Times' archives, marked, "BRIDGES - INTERSTATE 74" and "early clips."

Sure enough, the story revealed that the offices were built into the piers that support the bridge deck and toll plaza. The old plaza today serves as a parking spot for bridge contractors, the Iowa Department of Transportation and motorists unfortunate enough to have car trouble while crossing.

Directly underneath the mid-span parking lot is a giant space that time forgot. We are talking — get this — 2,800 square feet of offices, restrooms, mechanical storage, built-in safes, even showers.

You can guess what happened next: I set out to land myself and a photographer a tour of the bridge's underbelly.

The office tour

The former toll plaza in the middle of the I-74 bridge is not a safe place for most of us.

Although the speed limit on the bridge is 50 mph, many motorists regard it as more recommendation than rule. Plus, there are no turn lanes into the old plaza, and vehicles in either direction have very little warning when someone attempts to merge in or out.

When IDOT highway maintenance supervisor Clyde Tobey agreed to guide me and a photographer inside the old toll offices, he did so in the safest way possible.

Tobey drove the lead truck — a light bar flashing on top, and we followed in photographer John Schultz's pickup. Behind us was a large orange DOT truck — the kind used for plowing snow. Behind that was another large, orange DOT vehicle with a lighted, flashing arrow mounted on back.

All four vehicles drove from downtown Bettendorf, up I-74 to the Kimberly Road exit. We got off the interstate, then back on, using the distance from the bridge to create a neat, safe row of vehicles, heading back to it.

My first surprise came as we turned onto the plaza. It easily could hold a dozen vehicles.

I'd been paying extra-close attention to the plaza as I crossed the bridge for the month prior to our tour, but it's impossible to accurately gauge its size while driving past. More obvious is the little building on the plaza, which resembles a bus stop. The DOT guys unlocked its only door, revealing a normal-looking stairway that, despite our elevation above the Mississippi River, gave me no pause.

When we hit the last step, it was like we had climbed onto a helicopter and found the space of a cargo ship inside.

Back in time

Two things struck me immediately: It was much warmer than I had expected, given the outdoor temperature lingered at freezing. And the traffic noise above us was so muted, it had no effect on our conversations.

The concrete walls are several feet thick, and windows are everywhere.

The Iowa-bound span of I-74 was built first, opening as a local tollway in 1935. The second span, on the downstream side, was dedicated in 1960. Ten years after the second span was added, the tolls had paid off the construction debt for the twin spans, and the toll booths were cleared away. The remaining plaza and downstairs offices are the only things connecting the twins.

The two offices are nearly identical and are joined by a hallway with windows on either side.

As you've probably already guessed, the main attraction was just beyond those once-mysterious windows. Sixty feet above the river, the lateral dam looks like the bony spine of an enormous alligator. I spun on my heel from window to window, room to room — like a kid deciding which birthday gift to open first.

Tobey and senior equipment operator Ben Petty patiently followed, at the ready with answers to the questions that flowed like the current beneath us.

"We've never opened that vault," Petty said, seeing my eyes fall on a large, rusted door. "We've talked a lot about it. We can only assume it's empty."

Petty said he has followed in the footsteps of Dan Bailey, an IDOT bridge inspector who retired in 2015. During his 35 years as an inspector, Bailey walked every inch of both spans. Besides inspecting it, he took care of it — from painting piers and oiling joints to shoveling by hand the sand/salt mix that collected against the bridge curbs in the winter.

"I tried so many angles to get that thing opened up," Bailey said of the walk-in vault that once held the toll-takers' deposits. "I even went to a locksmith for advice.

"I always said that might be where Jimmy Hoffa ended up."

When he noted the ceiling beam in one office extended into the vault, he even tried to make the argument the vault should be opened, so he could inspect that beam. It didn't work.

It likely will be up to the demolition company that is hired to demolish the bridge in a few years to decide what to do with the vault. (Stand by.)

The offices are mostly barren now, except for a single desk, a pile of retired bridge cables and some steel plates. The plaster that framed one large set of windows got wet and began to crumble, so it was taken down, making one office look like it's under construction. It's not, of course.

"This was actually a very nice place to work, especially when you didn't have 70,000 vehicles a day passing overhead," Tobey said. "You'd have a great view of the eagles in winter."

I could almost picture it — the toll takers coming down after their shift and checking in with the security guard, whose table sat at the entrance to the upstream office. The guard no doubt placed the cash in one of the three wall safes, where it waited to be recounted and placed in the vault.

"The toll superintendent, Dick Bane, and his secretary, Ruby Meyer, faced west in the larger office," Petty said, recounting more of the details he had uncovered in his bridge research.

I pictured Ruby making the coffee and Mr. Bane hanging his hat on a coat rack near his desk. In a black-and-white photo I found in our archives from the 1960 opening of the second span, only one of the 58 people I counted was not wearing a hat. The toll-takers wore them, too; as part of their police-like uniforms.

There were 12 toll-takers, all men, according to a story from the 1960s. It appears from the pipes running up to the ceiling from the office boiler room that the toll booths also were heated. Just below the booths, the offices offered three bathrooms, including one with four stalls and two showers. In the day, there also were tables for lunch breaks and lockers for the men's things, Tobey said.

By November 1971, all signs of the toll booths and related operation were gone. The original set of stairs was sealed shut, and one was left open — for the maintenance people to come and go.

In the years after the closure, a developer made a pitch to the two Departments of Transportation for a restaurant idea, Bailey said. The company wanted to build a restaurant in the plaza, which would have been accessible only by boat. They wanted to add a transient boat dock to a pier below and an elevator to the plaza, bypassing the bridge altogether.

They must not have known about the offices.

'Scared to death of water'

Bailey was only 19 when he went to work in highway maintenance for IDOT in 1980. Two years later, he was spending most of his time crawling all over the I-74 bridge.

Ever wonder about those plastic owls that are lashed to the bridge towers?

"I got those at K&K (Hardware)," the now-57-year-old Davenport man said. "They were designed so the head would sort of bobble in the wind. But it gets very windy up there, and I was afraid the head would blow off and land on the roadway."

So, he bought some fishing line and secured the head to the body. It worked, sort of. While one owl is still doing its job, running off starlings and other bothersome birds, one of the owls vanished.

The decoys did not deter some species, including eagles and hawks. In Bailey's photo album of the bridge are several close-up shots of a red-tailed hawk and its baby in a nest on one of the piers. Asked how he got the shot, Bailey said he became accustomed to working on the bridge while holding on with one hand.

"I carried most of my tools in a five-gallon bucket," he said. "For a long time, we weren't tied off to anything. If I thought I needed to take a look at something, I'd just shimmy up a vertical beam.

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"They gave us a belt and lanyard, but the lanyard only opened a quarter inch, and there's not much on that bridge that's small enough to tie that onto. My hands at one time were pretty strong.

"I was there all that time, and no one asked if I could swim. I can't. I'm scared to death of water."

Scared or not, Bailey and other local inspectors would jump from one pier to another, rather than going all the way down to the river and climbing each one separately. Eventually, they put down a couple of boards and tied off a cable, so they could hold onto something. But they were busted by a consulting inspector who reported the unapproved walkway.

"They put it in their report, and we had a catwalk a year later," Bailey said.

Inside the old toll offices, we encountered a couple of holes in the floor that looked like uncovered manholes. Inside, steel ladders delivered bridge maintenance workers to two important places below.

Down the ladders 50 feet are two large concrete spaces called "anchorages." The collection of thick cables that support the bridge are drawn tightly into that room and anchored there. In one of the rooms, a well for water for the boiler, among other things, goes another 27 feet under the river.

Bailey showed pictures of the structures, which have rounded archways that reveal the thickness of the concrete. Inside one anchorage, Bailey left his mark.

Using a paint marker, he wrote his name, along with his title and years of service. His name joined a few others, including a bridge worker who autographed a wall in 1935.

Back up in the toll offices, Tobey and Petty pointed out some of the bridge lighting outside the windows. And Petty told how the maintenance crew frequently had to climb onto the outer edges of the bridge to replace light bulbs for the channel lights.

"Since we went to LED, we haven't been out there," Petty said.

As we looked out the windows toward Davenport, Tobey pointed out something we hadn't noticed: Small holes in several glass panels.

"Those are bullet holes," he said. "They weren't there a month ago."

I wondered who would do such a thing and considered the bullets, aimed higher, could have hit passing vehicles. Bailey had said something similarly disturbing: "It wasn't unusual for us to be walking the superstructure and have people in cars yelling as they passed, trying to scare us into falling."

He also recalled climbing to the very top of the bridge towers to replace bulbs in the lights that were mounted to warn approaching airplanes.

"When the flight patterns changed, we were told to remove the airplane lights," he said. "After that, it seemed like we had planes coming closer than before."

His 35-year career on the I-74 bridge is behind him, but Bailey said he thinks the bridge could continue to function for many more years, if properly maintained. But, as Petty pointed out, "the old girl" soon will be history, and it's probably time. It never was built for so many vehicles, has no pedestrian access and, most importantly, has been deemed unsafe.

For the man who spent his career making sure the bridge was safe, the span took him from sensory overload to total comfort.

"The second or third time I was walking the cables to the top, there was a lot of big debris coming down the river from a flood," he said. "At the same time, there were boats moving upriver, and there were cars and trucks passing on the bridge.

"I had to close my eyes and get my bearings. Later, I didn't even hold onto the cables as I went up.

"I guess I had pretty good balance after a while. In the day, all you really had was balance."

Although he didn't spend much time inside the old toll offices, Bailey always admired them.

"I always thought that would be a pretty cool place to work," he said. "What a place to spend your days."

Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or bickes@qctimes.com

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