Bridges of Stone, Wood, Concrete and Metal: The History of Minnesota’s Bridges

Cedar Avenue Bridge in Bloomington with an airplane descending towards the Twin Cities Airport. Built in 1929, the bridge has been abandoned since 2002 and its future is in question. Photo taken in August 2011

Book of the Month for August 2012: How Gardner’s book brings the materials together in chronological order

In the summer of 2008, while compiling a book on the bridges in my county of childhood, Jackson County, Minnesota, Denis Gardner, a historian at the Minnesota Historical Society, published a book on the history of bridges in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, where I was born and raised. I purchased the book not only for the use of information for my book, but also to find out more about the development of the bridges in Minnesota from the time of its statehood in 1858 to date. Furthermore, I wanted to find out more about the I-35W Bridge Disaster in 2007 and its effect on the future of the remaining historic bridges in the state. After all, Gardner was in the finishing stages of his work when the Minneapolis Bridge disaster happened on 1 August, 2007 and some information on this event was mentioned in the work. Yet, the book deals with the historic aspect of the bridges that helped shape the way people traveled throughout the state, thanks in part to the bridge builders that contributed a great deal to the state’s infrastructure. Yet the way Gardner structured the book, he may have set the precedent for other bridge book authors to follow.

Stone Arch Bridge at St. Anthony’s Falls in Minneapolis. Built in 1883 for the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Manitoba Railway, it is the longest stone arch bridge in the state and one that features an S-shaped curve. The bridge is now open to pedestrians. Photo taken in August 2011

Gardner divided his piece up into materials that were used for the development of bridges in the state: stone, wood, iron/steel and concrete, and arranged them in chronological order for a simple reason: these were the materials that were readily available for use. When the materials were exhausted or had enough flaws to cause potential disasters, they were replaced with newer materials that were sturdier and lasted longer.  While it was used mainly for log cabins, wood was abundant and also used for the first bridges designed to bring commerce to the settlement and visitors to the farmsteads. Stone was also used for bridge crossings, but they needed to be quarried and transported, which took an ample of innovative efforts, money and especially, manpower. Both were prone to natural disasters, with wooden bridges being destroyed by the spring thaw and floods and the stone arch bridges failing due to erosion. Then there was the usage of iron and steel for bridge construction, whose advantages included being lightweight and can be (re-) assembled, yet the problem with these structures have to do with rust and corrosion caused by not maintaining (and painting) the bridge on a regular basis. Then there is concrete, which most bridge builders use today, despite the fact that the lifespan of these bridges are shorter than those made of metal.

The Anoka-Champlain Bridge over the Mississippi River north of Anoka. The bridge used to carry US Hwy. 169 before it was bypassed in the 1990s. Photo taken in August 2011

Gardner connects the usage of materials with the development of bridges in the state, and the bridge builders and engineers who contributed to the construction of these structures. While some background information on the bridge types (as with the diagrams) were deemed necessary for the readers to understand, Gardner focused more on the role of the bridge builders in Minnesota, for the state became a primary breeding ground for bridge building empires to rise and dominate the landscape west of the Mississippi River beginning in the 1890s. This includes the empire consisting of  Commodore P. Jones, the Hewett Family (Seth M., William S. and Arthur), Alexander Bayne and later Milo Adams. These gentlemen established numerous bridge companies based in Minneapolis and were in business for a total of five decades. There was also Horace Horton before he emigrated to Chicago, and Lawrence Johnson, an immigrant from Flensburg (Germany) who later became a politician after establishing his own bridge company. Gardner takes the reader behind the scenes to reveal how these bridge companies filled the vacuum that was left behind after many bridge companies based in Chicago and eastward became part of the American Bridge Company consortium in 1901 and for the most part, left the bridge building scene in Minnesota afterwards.

Looking inside the St. Anthony Parkway Bridge, spanning the railroad yard northwest of Minneapolis. Built in 1925, it is one of a few multiple span bridges featuring a 30° skew on the portal bracings. The Warren truss span features six spans. Photo taken in September 2010

Gardner presented many examples of historic bridges in the present that are historically significant because of their design and connection with the bridge builders of that time, but are in danger of being replaced, especially in light of the I-35W Bridge tragedy of 2007. Most helpful was a directory containing a list of bridges that are either listed or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places with information about its design and history and (for most cases), bridge photos accompanying them. This provides the reader with an opportunity to examine them, plan a trip to these structures (assuming they are still standing, for the number has dropped dramatically since the book was published), and further their research on bridge builders and other bridge designs for their own projects.

Broadway Street Bridge over the Minnesota River in St. Peter. Built in 1931, it is the only two-span Pennsylvania through truss bridge left in the state and one of a few in the country whose spans are adjoining and not separate. Photo taken in September 2010

Gardner made sure that the bridge book was not too technical and that the history behind the construction of these bridges and the photos that accompanied the examples presented were easy for the people to understand. As a pontist, this book is very easy to read in comparison to the works written by authors that were too technical and lack the photos and diagrams  needed to support their arguments. But for a non-pontist, the book provides some easily accessible information on the history of bridges in the state and how it contributed to the history of the USA in general.  There have been many books written on the bridges in certain states. Yet this one brings bridge building and history together, putting the materials used for bridge construction in chronological order and bringing historic bridges home to the people who grew up knowing them, people who knew about them and the people who want to know more about them for their own purpose.

Note: The author took an opportunity to interview the author of the book, Denis Gardner. To view the interview, click here.