What to do with a HB: The Fate of the Sartell Bridge open

Overview from the current bridge. All photos taken in December 2010

Located over the Mississippi River in Sartell, one of the suburbs to the northwest of St. Cloud, Minnesota, the Sartell Bridge is one of those bridges, whose awkward location makes it impossible to photograph unless confronted by security guards. And with the adjacent paper mill now closed, the situation regarding the bridge’s fate is even awkward.

Returning from Little Falls and beating a nasty weather front that was bound to bring an arctic blast of snow and cold by New Year’s Day 2011, I found a few minutes of time to stop in Sartell for this bridge before meeting some friends at a New Year’s Eve celebration in the south of the Twin Cities.

Located over the Mississippi River near the business district, the Sartell Bridge, built in 1914 by the Minneapolis Steel and Machinery Company in Minneapolis, features a cream colored structure with three Camelback through truss spans which can be seen from the First Street Bridge, approximately 700 feet downstream. Given its location and the amount of trees that line the western bank of the river, one cannot see the bridge up close, not even from nearby Watab Park, without having to climb down the cliff. But even then, that is tricky for reasons to be mentioned later.  The bridge features a builder’s plaque on the westernmost portal bracing of the bridge, A-frame portal, which was used when building the bridge. All bridge parts are pin-connected, which was being phased out in favor of the standardized truss bridges with riveted connections. When the state of Minnesota ratified the law requiring bridge builders to abide by these new standards in 1913, it signalled the end to bridge building with truss designs that were considered obsolete and the usage of pinned connections on truss bridges, as they would not be able to accomodate the increasing amount of traffic.  The Sartell Bridge is one of the last of the bridges that were built using pinned connections and using the Camelback design, as they were both phased out after its completion. After 1914, riveted Pratt, Warren and Parker trusses were being used for bridge construction, even though a few examples of riveted Pennsylvania petit and Camelback truss bridges were also found in Minnesota and elsewhere. This include the Broadway Avenue Bridge in St. Peter (Pennsylvania truss), The Highway 250 Bridge over the Root River in Lanesboro (Pratt truss) and a pair of truss bridges over Sulphur Lake and Minnesota River near Morton (featuring a Camelback through truss over Sulphur Lake (now closed) and a combination Parker through and Warren pony trusses over the Minnesota River (now gone)).

Oblique view of the bridge, taken through the trees. This was as far as the author could get as the cliff was steep.

The Sartell Bridge was replaced by the First Avenue Bridge in 1984 and plans were in place to open it to pedestrians. However, the location was awkward as apart from climbing down to the bridge from the west bank of the Mississippi, the bridge is located next to the Verso Paper Mill on the east bank, providing a potential to compromise security to the facility.  The end result was the bridge being closed to pedestrians with security patrolling the bridge, which still carries utility lines to the paper mill.

The Verso Paper Mill had a history that lasted 107 years but ended in tragedy. It was founded by the limberjacks in 1905 as Watab Paper Company and remained a local entity before it was taken over in 1946 and renamed St. Regis Paper. It remained in business until it became part of the merger with Champion Paper in 1984. At that time, the Sartell Bridge was replaced by the current structure and plans to convert it into a pedestrian bridge was in place, only to be  scrapped later. Before the tragedy in May 2012, the company had three paper machines in operation, a power plant, a woodyard, a TMP plant producing pulp and a storage facility for paper.

The days of Verson Paper Mill came to an end through an explosion and fire on 29 May, 2012, killing one worker and injuring four others. On 2 August, it was announced that Verso was closing down the facility permanently, citing inprofitability and costs for rebuiling the paper mill as  reasons. 260 people were left to look for other jobs and the shock was felt across the town as the paper mill was one of the main anchors that stabilized the community of 11,000 that was next door to the fourth largest city in Minnesota.

Like the paper mill, the future of the Sartell Bridge is also in the air. The bridge and its creme colored truss spans are one of the highlights for people to see while passing through Sartell. The bridge is one of the last of the pre-1945 truss bridges remaining along the Upper Mississippi River and is on the National Register of Historic Places because of its construction at the time of the introduction of the standardized truss bridges and its association with the bridge building empire serving Minneapolis. Yet, the three-span Camelback truss complex is located in an awkward setting, and while it is possible to reopen the bridge for pedestrians, that plan would have to depend on the future of the paper mill- whether another company will take over, or if it will be completely demolished in favor of new development, or if it becomes a museum covering the paper mill’s 107-year history.  The bridge is located 10 feet above water levels, making it prone to flooding. This leads to the question of whether it makes sense to raise the bridge 10-20 feet if it was to remain in its original place or if it is even feasible to relocate all three truss spans. Given the good maintenance done on the bridge, even by the paper company, it would be a waste of money and a slap in the face to tear the bridge down, especially as it is protected by the NRHP.  The next 2-3 years will be crucial to determining not only the future of the Sartell Bridge, but also the adjacent paper mill, victim to tragedy by fire and by its subsequential closure that followed.

Close-up of one of the three Camelback through truss spans- zoomed in and taken from the current bridge

The question for the forum for the Sartell Bridge:

If you were the mayor of Sartell, what would you do with the Sartell Bridge, given the circumstances provided in the article? Do you:

a. Tear the bridge down and have a monument commemorating the bridge’s existence,

b. Keep the bridge in tact and use it as a pedestrian bridge, but raise it 20 feet to protect it from floodwaters,

c. Relocate the trusses,

d. Leave the bridge in place and hope the next developer will take it with the purchase of the paper mill, or

e. Other suggestions

And in connection with the Paper Mill, what would you do with it? Do you:

a. Sell it to a developer, who will most likely tear it down and turn it into a residential property,

b. Convert it into a museum owned by the city and/or state, or

c. Sell it to a business person who will turn it into a company attracting people to Sartell for work.


You can leave your suggestions here under comments or through facebook under the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles. Also please click on the underlined words for links to the examples and the articles featured in this article.