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Suspected Arson Damages Iowa's Famous Covered Bridges - 2003-10-23

In the middle of the midwestern state of Iowa there is a county named Madison that has become famous worldwide for its covered bridges. You may remember the best-selling book by Robert James Waller, The Bridges of Madison County, which was made into the 1994 motion picture of the same name by actor/director Clint Eastwood. But, the famous bridges are under a mysterious threat.

Someone is trying to burn the bridges of Madison County. Last year, the Cedar bridge, which figured prominently in the book, was destroyed by a fire investigators later determined to be arson. In the past few weeks there have been indications that this was not an isolated incident. There was an attempt to burn another bridge and a fire that heavily damaged a farm house that was used in the movie.

These incidents have marred the peaceful, idyllic image of Madison County and fans of the book and film around the world have voiced their outrage. The arson cases have been especially hard for the 15,000 or so inhabitants of Madison County, who profit from the tens of thousands of tourists who come every year to see the bridges and the sites used for the movie.

But Brenda Hollingsworth, program director for the Madison County Chamber of Commerce, says this is not about money.

"Those landmarks do draw a tremendous amount of people here and do us a great deal of good, but we are not looking at their destruction in terms of economics," she said. "It is more emotional. It is the destruction of a legacy for us in this community."

The county is exploring the idea of rebuilding the Cedar bridge, but many citizens are worried about further attacks on their landmarks. Ms. Hollingsworth says county residents have no idea who committed these crimes against their heritage, but they are full of speculation.

"There are two widely held theories and one is that it is someone bearing a grudge and there is lots of speculation about what that grudge might be," she said. "The other is that it is just mindless acts of terrorism. Those are the two common theories that we hear. I do not know if officials are leaning one way or another at this point."

The man in charge of the official investigation is Madison County Sheriff Paul Welch. He says citizens are upset and angry and looking for answers.

"It does not go very far into each day before you have someone who confronts you and asks about the investigation," he said. "Their hopes are that the individual or individuals who are responsible will be apprehended and the situation can be brought to a stop. There are a lot of concerns about whether there is going to be another fire and what is being done to avoid having that situation."

Law enforcement agencies are offering more than $20,000 in reward money for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever is responsible for the fires. Author Robert James Waller has added $10,000 of his own money as an additional award.

Sheriff Welch says county officials are looking into the installation of monitoring devices to protect some of the landmarks, but that, in the meantime, they are asking local residents to help.

"We are asking for the residents of Madison County, in their travels, to maybe alter their path to take them by the bridges and other points of interest, to be our eyes and ears and assist us because law enforcement is not the total answer for their security," he said.

There were originally 16 covered bridges in Madison County, all built in the early 1880s. The reason for the covering was to protect the heavy timbers on the floor. In those days most of the traffic over the bridges was horse-drawn wagons, but when automobiles became more common the bridges were either taken down or moved to out-of-the way locations where they were preserved as historical artifacts. Three of the remaining five bridges are located in rural areas where few people pass in the evening hours.

Authorities, however, are hoping increased vigilance will dissuade anyone from trying to burn the remaining bridges of Madison County.