Crossing the Great River Bridge from Illinois into southeast Iowa is spectacular in the daylight hours -- the bridge’s soaring tower and suspension cables dominate the sky while the Mississippi River sparkles nearly a half mile wide below.

Reach the midpoint of the bridge on U.S. Highway 34, and the steeples of Burlington’s churches, high on a bluff overlooking the river, welcome you into Iowa. Cross at night, though, and it’s a sea of black.

That’s the visual longtime resident Gretchen Miller and a group of civic-minded locals hope to change starting in August, when the fruits of their six-year effort finally throw the switch and bathe more than a half dozen of the city’s most prominent church towers in light.

The work of installing the $300,000 high-tech LED lights is being performed by members of Burlington Local 13 and signatory contractor Dave Bessine Electric, who Miller’s Downtown Lighting Committee and lighting supplier Energyficient hired earlier this year.

“We’re so excited to be a part of this project,” said Bessine, who hoped to have each of his 10 Local 13 wiremen devote time to the effort before its completion. “It’s going to be great – just beautiful, and a real point of pride for the people of Burlington.”

For Miller, who first dreamed of illuminating all of Burlington’s churches in 2010, the journey to getting wires pulled and lights on poles has been long, but rewarding. The idea first came up years ago when a generous memorial was left at St. John’s Church downtown in honor of a former parishioner.

“They used it to light the building,” she said, “and it really inspired me to do something and work to get the rest of them done.”

The new lights have been meticulously laid out to highlight the unique architecture of downtown Burlington, and Miller and the rest of her committee hope it will be a fitting tribute to the 180-year-old town’s history as one of the first settlements in Iowa.

By late May, Bessine and his crew had finished the unglamorous but critically important work of trenching for wires and pouring concrete bases for light poles. In June, they expected to be setting poles, some as tall as 45 feet, mounting brackets and installing the state-of-the-art lighting that will be controlled through radio-transponders installed in each fixture.

Local 13 wireman Kevin Klein, a five-year member who topped out earlier this year, is ready for the next step. “It’s really going to spruce these buildings up,” he said, noting how the plan calls for the lights to accent the peaks and valleys of the church roofs, crosses and other architectural details. “These LED lights will last for 15 or 20 years in most cases, so once they’re up, the maintenance is really minimal.”

Miller hopes the work will be completed in time for a city-wide celebration in August, but for now, she’s just grateful for the generous support of Burlington’s citizens, charitable foundations and businesses. “We’ve raised nearly $300,000 to cover the installation and ongoing maintenance of these lights,” she said, “and I think that number will continue to go up once people see the effect they have on this town.”

The next project, she hopes, will be the relighting of the Great River Bridge itself, which has been neglected in recent years. “Burlington is the gateway into southeast Iowa,” she said, “and we want our landmarks to be showcased the best way they can.”

“We’re just proud to be a part of this,” said Local 13 Business Manager John Weyer. “Most of our work is behind the scenes in industrial settings, so to have this big public project and to be able to give back to this community is a great way to promote the work of the IBEW.”

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user Ilya Katsnelson.