Waterford Iron Bridge (Minnesota):

Overview of the bridge (Note all photos taken in August 2011)

Heading southwest in the direction of my childhood place of Jackson on a heavily used state rural highway through Dakota County, there is an old iron bridge located just off to the left of the road that one would easily forget unless he was told that it was there and was worth visiting if he ever was interested in historic bridges or even the history of the region, like Dakota County.  Located just a mile northeast of Waterford and four from Northfield, the first fact that one has to know about the bridge is that it is on Canada Avenue and when turning left and crossing the single-lane railroad track, one will meet the Cannon River in an instant. While there is a concrete bridge that is open to traffic as the Dudley Bridge, the second factor one should know about is the fact that the Camelback through truss bridge can be seen on the left side. Yet getting to the 1909 structure after crossing the 2010 piece of modern concrete slab (sorry but it does look bland to the naked eye) does create an interesting challenge, as I encountered it when I parked my white Aveo off to the side and went to the bridge for some photo opportunities.

South entrance

There are two ways of getting to the bridge- one following a path underneath the new bridge, which is nothing more but a pile of dirt turned into thick oozing mud when wet, and one through the weeds, whose bright yellow and dark brown Maximilian sunflowers mask the thistles and deer ticks lurking in the ground. In either way, the paths converge onto what was left of the gravel road that would follow the 30s style telephone poles and pat the south shores of the Cannon before making it sharp 45° turn towards the river and meeting the A-frame portal bracing and the plaque with the names of the people who helped build this unique structure.

Oblique view

The Waterford Iron Bridge was built by the Hennepin Bridge Company in Minneapolis, which has a history of its own. The company was founded by Lawrence H. Johnson in 1905. His career as a bridge builder dates back to his days with Commodore Jones and the Minneapolis Bridge Company. He also had a small bridge building business prior to that, where a rare Camelback through truss bridge near Mankato was built in 1901.  Not only did he build bridges, he was into politics, as he was a state representative from 1901 to 1909, a position which included his post as speaker of the house in 1907.  Apart from its sleaky silver color, the bridge is unique as it is the only structure left, whose connections are bolted. At the time of its construction in 1909, many bridge companies were experimenting with ways of making the truss bridges sturdier, more capable of carrying heavier traffic. Truss bridges were originally assembled together using pinned connections, meaning the parts would be assembled using metal pins that were screwed together with bolts. But as traffic became heavier and more numerous, tensions on these pins combined with the weather extremities caused them to weaken and corrode, forcing engineers to replace them before the structure collapsed.  Already calls for standardized bridges with riveted connections- meaning the parts would slide together like a glove and screwed together- were becoming louder, namely for the fact that railroad companies were using truss bridges with these riveted connections to accomodate heavier rail traffic without incident. When the bridge was built, the parts were put together similar to that of the riveted connections, but were bolted shut to ensure that the truss bridge would remain stable. Examples of bolted connections can be found on the diagonal beams as well as along the upper and lower chords of the structure. Furthermore, the Waterford Iron Bridge was one of the very last bridges in the US that was built using iron. Iron had become obsolete when steel took over as the main material for bridge construction in 1890, and the construction of the Waterford signalled the end to iron-made bridges in Minnesota for bridges of this type were being built using steel, which was light-weight and flexible in comparison with iron, which can be brittle, corrode easily and has a lower melting temperature in comparison with steel.

Example of bolted connections at the upper chord

The bridge remained in exceptionally good condition throughout all of its life with the exception of the fact that there were cracks in the southeast wingwall and damage to the abutments caused by flooding in 1983. Not even the floods of 2010 and spring 2011 caused havoc to the structure, which is a good sign that the bridge has been cared for by the county and the township, which will continue that process even if the bridge is now obsolete because of the neighboring Dudley Bridge.

Currently, the group responsible for saving the bridge is planning on replacing the above-mentioned sections together with the concrete and steel decking with new steel decking with treated timber, with long-term plans of incorporating it into the 26-mile Town Trail system connecting Faribault and Cannon Falls. While they applied for grants to undertake this task of prepping it up for bike trail use, they found out that their bridge is in the top 25 of the Partners for Preservation competition, where 25 of the best candidates would receive the top prize of $1 million dollars. While the Waterford bridge is the only historic bridge in the running, other candidates include the Minnesota Transportation Museum in St. Paul, Pilot Knob where the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers meet, the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand and Ramp in Falcon Heights, and the Basilica of St. Mary Church in Minneapolis.  While 2% of the population have so far voted for the Waterford Bridge, there is still time to vote before the deadline of 12 October by clicking on the link at the end of the article.

North entrance with portal view. Note that the boulders prevent drivers from entering the bridge

Regardless of what the outcome of the vote is, it is certain that the bridge will be cared for for generations to come because of its uniqueness and history. Furthermore, the bridge definitely provides cyclists and pedestrians alike with natural surroundings that one can rarely find in a historic bridge like this in Minnesota. Currently, only 40 or so truss bridges are left in Minnesota and the numbers are dropping by the year. Only a handful like this bridge provide some conformity with the natural surroundings and history to those who want to know more about its construction and its connection with American history. The opportunity to save the Waterford Bridge is grand and will set the precedent for other bridges of its kind, whose function of serving traffic is nearing its end, but whose beauty and history deserves its place as a recreational structure for generations to enjoy.

The big tree divides the Waterford (right) with the Dudley (left)

The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles wishes the group the best of luck in the contest and with their endeavors in saving the bridge. One advice: the bike trail from the bridge going south is better off going under the Dudley Bridge to provide some excitement for the cyclist at heart. 🙂

South portal view with concrete flooring. Note the builder’s plaque on the portal bracing

You can view the photos of the bridge via flickr, which you can click here.