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Most of us probably didn't even know it's up there.

Forty-five steps above the deck of the Government Bridge is a tower. It rests in the center of the swing span — like the nest of a giant eagle.

To a first-time visitor, the bridge's 22-foot by 22-foot control tower verges on surreal. Through its oversized windows on all four walls, the room appears to be floating on the Mississippi River — hovering between and above Davenport and Rock Island.

In the center of the one-room square, the span's original, 120-year-old drive gears, about the size of ships' wheels, are controlled by hand. Operators in the tower control the speed of the swing span, using line of sight to perfectly permit passage of barges, tows and pleasure boats in and out of the locks before swinging back into alignment with the bridge.

From the ceiling hangs a wooden-handled rope. When pulled, a mighty whistle alerts everyone below that a turn of the swing span is imminent.

Near one corner of the tower, a giant monitor reveals live images from a dozen or more surveillance cameras in all areas of the Government Bridge — even (maybe especially) the under-side.

High above the river, in this well-lit, temperature-controlled tower, a handful of operators share the duties that are required of them every hour of nearly every day of every year. They average 500 turns of the swing span each month while keeping the greasy, hulking dinosaur in tip-top shape.

When winter storms cast ice upon the ladder-like steps to the tower, operators carry hammers to pound at the icy rungs, leaving them with one hand to grip the slippery railing.

Back on the ground, in a small brick "house" that you can't miss as you cross the bridge onto the Rock Island Arsenal, one man oversees it all.

For one-third of the Government Bridge's life, R. Mike Dunne has been a caretaker. Now the bridge supervisor, Dunne may know more about the one-of-a-kind span than anyone else in the world.

As he heads for retirement in the spring, after a 40-year career, Dunne will take with him something few people have: Besides knowing every square inch of the estimated 15 million-pound bridge, he is widely regarded its most thorough historian.

Bridge was 'over-engineered'

The Government Bridge is the only one of its kind in the world: A 360-degree swing span that serves Mississippi River navigation while carrying railroad traffic, vehicles, pedestrians and bicycles.

"It's really an extremely simple design," Dunne said from his desk in the cozy "bridge house," just to the right on the Arsenal end of the span. "Where else can you find something that's 120 years old and still doing what it was designed to do?"

And what other Quad-City structure contains so much history?

Consider, for instance, that the 1,850 feet of bridge connected much more than Rock Island and Davenport. It accommodated the westward expansion, moving rail-driven goods to market and forging a relationship between river and rail. It replaced the first railroad bridge on the Mississippi River.

The lock and dam system that came after the bridge offered safe passage to river-going vessels that were fatally snagged by the notorious rapids of Rock Island. The lock system raised the water in the pool above it by nearly 20 feet, making passage safer and faster.

The bridge many Quad-Citians refer to as the "Arsenal Bridge" is the fourth to reside at or near its current location.

The very first railroad bridge across the Mississippi was just upstream. But it had another claim to fame, having been hit and destroyed by the burning Effie Afton steamboat in 1856 — just 15 days after it was completed.

"The steamboat people said the first bridge was poorly placed, and they were probably right," Rock Island Arsenal historian George Eaton said.

Even so, another bridge was built in the same spot in 1866, but it succumbed to ice and wind about six years after it was built.

So, an iron structure was built downstream — on the same piers that now hold the Government Bridge. But, after just 20 years, the iron bridge was obsolete because it could not accommodate the rapidly increasing traffic demands of westward growth.

Enter Ralph Modjeski, a first-time bridge architect who designed a steel structure atop the existing piers, including a double set of railroad tracks above a two-lane road.

It opened Dec. 1, 1896, and trains, cars, trucks, boats, bicyclists and pedestrians have relied on it ever since.

Now at 120 years old, spinning 500 times a month for boats and barges and carrying an average of 20,000 vehicles a day, one might guess the Arsenal Bridge is worn out.

Guess again.

"A stress test was performed on the bridge 10 years ago," Eaton, the historian, said. "Ten to 12 percent of its lifespan had been used."

This news came as a relief to Dunne, the bridge superintendent.

"Their report indicated that the bridge was nowhere near the end of its useful life," he said. " So, there will be at least a couple more persons that get to sit in this chair."

Modjeski & Masters going strong, too

When the Government Bridge required a stress test a decade ago, it was performed by Pennsylvania-based Modjeski & Masters.

When an Army Corps of Engineers contractor couldn't find a way to repair eroded treadplates that support the 366-foot-long swing span in 2002, Modjeski & Masters was called.

Even earlier, in 1957, Modjeski & Masters performed a major structural rehab on the bridge.

Ralph Modjeski designed the Government Bridge as his first major project. Although he died in 1940, the firm he co-founded went on to enjoy bridge-building success. He designed to work like this: In order to open the span, an operator first uses hydraulic pressure to lower either end a few inches to allow space for it to rotate. Motors send power to a differential, which directs the force to drive shafts. The shafts turn chains, which turn a massive sprocket, permitting the swing span to rotate.

Those working for Modjeski & Masters today haven't forgotten about their first big build, and it shares a connection with Modjeski's last.

"Another thing that's really cool about that bridge to me is that it was Modjeski's first bridge design, and his last was the Interstate 74 bridge," Eaton said. "He became a huge, huge bridge builder, and his first and last were here."

Jim Nugent, marketing manager for Modjeski & Masters, confirmed the company's co-founder oversaw the design of the original I-74 bridge, which was finished in 1936. But he didn't retire the day the Moline-to-Bettendorf span was complete.

"It was one of his last designs but technically not the last one he ever worked on," he said, referring to Modjeski's input on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

The man who knows it best

The swing span on the Government Bridge originally was powered pneumatically (using air or gas under pressure), but it later was converted to a combination of hydraulics (using liquid, moving in confined space under pressure), along with electric components.

Parts and pieces have worn out here and there; some are quickly repaired in the fabrication shops on Arsenal Island, while others have been rebuilt on the spot by engineers from Modjeski & Masters and others.

It was painted black, so it was less apt to be detected by radar during World War II, and it gets a new coat every 20 years or so. During the months of December and January, when the frozen river typically is closed to navigation, the team of bridge operators is reduced to a first-shift-only force, spending time on maintenance while the swing span is "locked."

Weather permitting, the span is "unlocked" in February. And, from time-to-time, during a mild winter and with 24 hours' notice, the span will be unlocked to permit the passage of an ambitious tow.

Even when the tower is dark, operators maintain radio contact with each other, with operators at Lock 15 and with the railroad. Communication does not shut down with the river.

The modern-day technology that necessarily blends with history are tools of the trade for Dunne.

When something breaks, he has to know how to fix it. He must immediately notify the U.S. Coast Guard, because navigation always gets the right-of-way on the river. If the swing span is broken, river traffic can be affected, and Dunne is responsible for making sure word gets up and down the river.

The little bridge house from which he operates is known as Building 201.

From his high-back leather chair, cellphone on his hip, Dunne can see everything in, on and around the bridge. He is kept in-the-know by the same set of security cameras that send images to the bridge tower. Computer screens mingle with family pictures, a couple of baseballs, a bottle of aspirin and hand-held radios.

"To be honest, it's a big pain in the butt to a lot of people," he said of the aged swing span. "We try to turn on the warning lights in Davenport and Rock Island five minutes before the gates are closed."

Originally, the bridge whistle was relied upon as the primary alert — not so much to bridge users as to operators. It signaled to the "ground person" that a turn was needed, and it was time to clear the bridge of wagons, horses, street cars, automobiles, bikes and pedestrians.

"Once that was done, there was an indicator switch on each end of the bridge the ground person would trip that would activate a light in the tower, telling the operator it was clear to turn the swing span," Dunne said. "It would also alert the tow captain the bridge was preparing to turn so they could pass. Lastly, it alerted wagon, road and pedestrian traffic the bridge would be turning."

The goal of the swing-span operator always has been a smooth turn from behind the tow and back into position. After all, the swing span takes with it the road deck, railroad deck and pedestrian walkway. And every moving piece must be working properly at all times.

In addition to Dunne and his five operators, another member of the bridge team works on the ground in maintenance, making sure every gear and pin is doing what it should.

"This bridge is so well-maintained, it's to the credit of the Arsenal," Dunne said. "We are committed to rigorous, repetitive maintenance every single day."

The goal for the person in the grounds position is to advance after two years to a position in the tower, where another two years of training culminates in an operator's role.

"I'm the only one who can certify an operator," Dunne said. "I'm only the seventh person who has ever sat in that chair (in the bridge house). I'm on call 24/7. Someone always has to be here.

"I've been more than fortunate to be part of it for 40 years. I never got tired of it."

How he got there

As the sturdy Government Bridge was soldiering on toward its 80th year in operation, R. Mike Dunne was serving in Vietnam.

As a veteran looking for work in the mid-1970s, he said, he got "a little preferential treatment" for a job as the grounds person on the bridge at the Rock Island Arsenal. Right after Vietnam, he worked train wrecks for a railroad company and was gaining considerable mechanical knowledge.

Opportunity knocked when a contracting company, Rock Island Integrated Services, won a bid for operating the Government Bridge.

"I agreed to work for the contractor under the condition I could take the bridge in a direction I thought was best for the government," Dunne said. "I told them my first allegiance is to the bridge. I really feel that we are gatekeepers of history. It's really an honor.

"There is some level of maintenance and inspection every single day. There are no technical manuals. It's a learned job. Most of the things that go wrong out here are a first time."

The goal for everyone is to keep the turn span swinging to satisfy its priority customers: barges and tows.

"By contract, we are obligated to average 13 minutes per turn of the span over the period of a month," he said. "We have a lot of turns a lot longer. High water can slow us down and so can maintenance."

And he keeps track of every single turn of the 4 million-pound swing span.

He keeps a log, tracking every boat by name, how much time it took to get through, the direction in which it was traveling, the time, weather conditions and, if a tow, how many barges came with it.

"We have a record of every turn this bridge has ever made, except for during the war years," he said, saying certain comings and goings were considered classified.

For those going downriver, barges typically are floated out of the lock nine at a time. Barge workers tie them off on nearby mooring points, and the remaining barges and tow are locked through. As they pass the bridge house on the Illinois-side shoreline, barge workers and captains are oblivious to some of the history that surrounds them.

Dunne, who would make a fine history professor, explained: "Some of the caves the Indian tribes used are under my office. They go deep into the limestone, and we know one of them here was called 'Spirit Cave' and was used by native Americans for spiritual traditions."

When problems have arisen over the past 40 years, Dunne was there.

"We had a problem where we had bald eagles striking the power lines (atop the span) until reflectors were installed," he said. "When those bald eagles hit, we call the DNR immediately. You don't touch those birds."

But the reflectors appear to be working. The bridge has a certain magic that way for Dunne — the way it just keeps going, sloughing off challenges.

"We've had people work on this bridge who become as enthralled with it as I am," he said. "One guy built a miniature scale of it.

"I have a difficult time, thinking about leaving. But it's time.

"I have a little land, and I love gardening. I tell you what, though: I'll miss it. It is a remarkable piece of Quad-City history, and I've been honored to look out for it."

Dunne's reliever

Government Bridge operator Danny Farnsworth is the heir apparent for the bridge supervisor post being vacated by the April retirement of Mike Dunne.

He knows the bridge. He knows the tower. He knows the locks.

"It's first-come, first-served in terms of getting boats through," he said. "We can hear them (boat captains) calling in, usually 45 minutes to an hour out."

That's routine stuff.

Fransworth does most of his learning, as his boss said, on the job.

Earlier this month, a leak in a hydraulic hose was discovered. It was a good training exercise for Farnsworth.

Even though the 38-year-old has worked on-and-off as an operator for 10 years, the bridge has a reputation for surprising people.

When the hose problem was discovered, the first call went to the Coast Guard, notifying mariners of a delay in navigation. Operators estimated it would take four hours to repair. But 3½ hours later, Dunne sent out notice the bridge was back in action.

"A hydraulics man came from (Sublette, Illinios) and made a new line — right there on the truck," Farnsworth said.

And now he knows a good hydraulics guy.

"Usually, these events are one of a kind, as was this one," Dunne said of the leaking hose. "That is why it is so important to understand how it all ties in together and what may be the root cause.

"Never happened before, hopefully never again. However, if it does, plans are already being addressed that would reduce that delay time to two hours or less. It is an amazing structure, and it helps to understand it thoroughly."

Farnsworth is working on it. The Colona native previously managed a salvage yard and started filling himself up with mechanical understanding at an early age.

"I've been tinkering with cars since I was about 15," he said.

And now he's preparing himself for something much bigger.

"I love it," he said of the Government Bridge. "I do random Google (searches) on it.

"The more you know about it, the better. I love the age of it and the fact it's still in operation. For the most part, we know what goes on and the steps to fix things.

"To turn the bridge; not anybody can do it."

And what about Dunne's leadership?

"He's been awesome, probably the best supervisor I've ever had," he said. "He's very knowledgeable and an excellent teacher. If you don't have an answer, he'll find it.

"It's going to be hard to take his place, for sure. But I'm not going anywhere unless I'm forced to."

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

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