Jackson County is pursuing plans to replace the first concrete through girder bridge in the State of Minnesota. Public discussion on its future to be planned soon.
Jackson County, Minnesota. Apart from my place of childhood, where I grew up and graduated, the county was once a place laden with historic places people like me grew up with. We had the roller skating rink south of Windom, the National Guard Armory in Jackson where we played basketball in high school, the Jackson High School Complex across from the county courthouse, plus many historic farmsteads that were scattered across the landscape. It was here where my interest in historic bridges took shape, as I grew up having seen and crossed dozens of pre-1920 bridges, six of which crossed the Des Moines River, including the Black Bridge (the Milwaukee Railroad Viaduct), one of three steel bridges that existed in Jackson.
Yet like it has done with the aforementioned artifacts, the historic bridges are disappearing like flies, with the county pursuing a merciless plan to modernize the landscape to beyond recognition and attempts to save what is left are being quashed by political tactics and pressure by those with enough power to have things their way. Bridge 2628, spanning Okabena Creek at Township Road 183 in Alba Township is one of those bridges standing in the way of progress, and unless attempts are made to halt it, the 60-foot long bridge will be gone by 2017.
When looking at the bridge for the first time, one could perceive it as just an ordinary bridge. Yet the 1917 structure has a history of its own, which justifies its listing on the National Register of Historic Places and the need to preserve it. The bridge was built during World War I, where steel was scarce for it was being used for the war efforts. Originally a Warren pony truss was supposed to be in its place. Yet with no steel available, the State Road Department (the predecessor to today’s Minnesota Department of Transportation) decided for a bridge variant built using concrete. While box culverts were used prior to 1917, using art deco railings, the state vied for an experiment, which later justified its expanded usage for both rail and vehicular traffic: the girder bridge. Reason: the girder bridge featured railings that supported the roadway instead of the piers and abutments, as found with beam bridges. The first concrete through girder bridge was constructed and opened to traffic in the summer of 1917 and has remained in service ever since. This is symbolic for no bridge had been constructed which was 60 feet long or more. It set the stage for the use of concrete bridges for long-span crossings, which commenced after 1920 in Minnesota and after 1940 in Jackson County.
Yet the situation is looking bleak for the structure. The county engineer wants the bridge replaced with a wider and sturdier one, citing age and structural deterioration, weight limit and the structure’s narrowness as the main reasons. The county has already taken a look at alternatives, none of which have circumvented the inevitable plan decided upon to replace it outright. This included constructing a replacement alongside the original one (the argument against that was because of the dangerous curves presented in bypassing the road around the bridge), rehabilitating it (which would be too expensive), leaving it alone and closing it (which would cause a hindrance to the 20+ vehicles crossing the bridge every day.) Being located in a sparsely populated area, it would make sense to have farmers and passengers go the extra mile to get to their destinations, thus allowing the bridge to be left in place with permanent barriers. Having a park in the vicinity of the bridge would be possible, yet money would be needed for a shelter house, picnic area, playground and especially trees. It would actually go well with a bike trail along Okabena Creek. Yet with the recent opposition by county residents to construct bike trails along the Des Moines River connecting Jackson and Windom due to issues of property easements and increase in costs, the idea of having a bike trail along Okabena Creek connecting Heron Lake and Brewster with many pre-1940 bridges long gone would send many to the barracks to arm themselves.
Yet because the bridge is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, there is hope that a solution can be reached so that the bridge can have another life after serving vehicular traffic for almost 100 years. The county will need to conduct environmental impact and cultural significance studies as required by law concerning all historic places. In addition, public input will be needed to determine what to do with the bridge. This will buy some time for the bridge as well as for the parties willing to do something with the 60-foot structure, including securing funding for rehabilitation and possible relocation.
Relocation. An option for a concrete bridge?
The idea sounds absurd, but it is doable. As seen in the Ammann Awards entries from last year, the first ever prestressed and pretensioned concrete bridge in the world, constructed in 1938 over a motorway in the German state of North Rhine Westphalia was relocated to a rest area near its original site and now serves as a monument. Yet a pair of more local examples include the relocation of two arch bridges in Iowa. The first ever reinforced concrete arch bridge, designed by Josef Melan and built by Fritz von Emprenger in 1894, was spared demolition and relocated to its current site, Emma Sater Park in Rock Rapids, 50 years ago. It was one of the first structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which occurred in 1970. A Keystone stone arch bridge in Pocahontas County, built in the 1880s, was relocated from a small creek to a park outside Pocahontas in 1980. Both structures are about the same length as the girder bridge in Jackson County. As the construction of bike trail extensions are underway in and around Jackson, such a historic bridge could be relocated to a site along the way, to serve either as a crossing or a monument. Even its relocation to one of the parks in Jackson, Lakefield or Heron Lake to serve as a monument would suffice as well. This would perhaps be the best alternative to it being bypassed and/or left alone as is, being a forgotten relict with a fruitful history and its contribution to the development of concrete bridges after 1920 and the state infrastructure as a whole.
Bridge 2628 is one of two remaining historic bridges left in Jackson County, yet its future is in doubt as the county wishes to replace the structure with a longer, wider and even sturdier bridge. Given the number of pre-1930 bridges that have dwindled in numbers, it would not be surprising if Jackson County joins McLeod, Swift, Waseca and Douglas Counties in a couple years with absolutely no bridges left over, unless action is taken to save the remaining two structures (ironically, a Queenpost pony truss bridge is the other structure left in the same county and in the same township, only seven miles upstream). Given its structural and historical importance, it is essential that something is done for the bridge without destroying it, setting the example of other remaining historic bridges that are in need of the same treatment as given to the county courthouse in Jackson, as well as the historic business districts in Jackson and Lakefield, to name a few. After suffering a harsh setback with the fall of the Middle School building in 2011, it is now more important than ever to save what is left of the county’s history before it is too late.
For more information about how to save Bridge 2628, please contact the Jackson County Highway Department and the Jackson County Historical Society for more details and pay attention to the upcoming public meetings pertaining to the future of the bridge.
Information can also be obtained by the US Army Corps of Engineers under Linda Pate, using the following contact details:
Linda Pate Cultural Resource Historian Regulatory Branch U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District 180 Fifth Street East, Suite 700 St. Paul, MN 55101 firstname.lastname@example.org (651) 290-5970 (o) (651) 245-8276 (c)
Jackson lost the 1928 Armory Building in 1999 (now replaced with a bank), the Jackson Junior and Senior High School Complex in 2011 (the 1909 half was demolished in 1982 and was not replaced, the 1938 half in 2011 despite protests and litigation, and replaced with a modern building), and the 1975 First National Bank Building in 2012 (replaced).
The author would like to thank Sam and Anna Smith as well as Pete Wilson at MnDOT for the use of the photos. Originally, they were used for the book on Jackson County’s historic, whose abbreviated version can be found in the county’s 150th anniversary book, published in 2007. The extended version is being edited and will be made available for purchase once it is finished. An article on the Lost Bridges of that county is in the making for the Chronicles, together with some information on the girder bridge.