The High Bridge: City’s long-beloved span gets a face lift in 2018

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The aptly named High Bridge in Saint Paul is closed from September 2017 through December 2018 for redecking, adding new pedestrian and bicycle facilities, and improving the road approaches. While that work is underway, here’s a look at the bridge’s storied past.

On February 24, 1985, the High Bridge, one of Saint Paul’s most visible and well known landmarks, was demolished in a spectacle that thousands of neighborhood residents gathered in the cold weather to watch. The old bridge, which dated from 1889, had deteriorated so badly it had to be destroyed before its replacement was even begun, just a few years before its hundredth birthday.

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Just over a hundred years ago, on August 20, 1904, a storm rendered the bridge useless when winds ripped off the southern section of the bridge and dropped it 100 yards down the river. The storm winds were recorded as reaching 180 miles per hour before the anemometer broke. The newspaper carried the headline, “The Wrecked High Bridge Is the Most Serious Property Loss Caused by the Storm in Its Passage Over the City,” and said, “… the wind in its work of destruction made useless the most expensive bridge in the city. Not a rod nor brace was left hanging to the uninjured structure. Everything was carried out,” according to St. Paul’s High Bridge, 1889-1985, by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. During the storm, “brave folks waved lanterns and warned boat captains to alter their courses around the fallen bridge pieces,” noted Kathy Vadnais in High Bridge Highs, a book written on the occasion of the bridge’s demise.

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Events and reactions surrounding both the storm’s destruction of the bridge and its 1985 demolition illustrate just how much St. Paul has depended on this bridge over the years and just how important it has been to Saint Paulites as an emblem of their city. When it was built, its purpose was to connect “St. Paul’s oldest residential neighborhood, West Seventh Street, with … the Upper West Side, the only remaining undeveloped neighborhood within walking distance of downtown St. Paul,” according to St. Paul’s High Bridge. The city’s labor force needed to live close enough to walk to work. Plus, the bridge provided a connection between the farming areas to the south and an important marketplace for the goods those farms produced.

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The challenge was connecting the Upper West Side, sitting on top of the Mississippi River bluffs, with the rest of the town. It was cut off from the flats below because wagons loaded with produce and goods could not traverse the steep roads up the cliffs. Thus, the bridge had to be high. In fact, it was 2,770 feet long and rose from 80 to 191 feet above the river.

Saint Paul was a boom town when the High Bridge first was built. In 1888, eight million passengers passed through St. Paul’s Union Depot, and 150 or more trains came and went daily. Plenty more people came by steamboat, so the town was bursting at the seams, and greatly needed to expand to the west side.

The mover and shaker behind the High Bridge was St. Paul’s mayor, Robert A. Smith, who was also a state senator at the time the bridge was built. Holding both offices “provided him with an excellent position from which to see his plans through on both a state and city level, and proved to be of particular advantage in the case of the High Bridge” (St. Paul’s High Bridge, p. 13). However, some Chamber of Commerce members objected to the bridge project, saying the situation appeared to be a real estate speculation to benefit members of the legislature who owned property on the West Side. Regardless, the project was approved and the streets connected by the bridge were renamed Smith Avenue to honor Mayor Smith.

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Controversy also arose when the contract for building the bridge’s superstructure was awarded not to the lowest bidder but to Keystone Bridge Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Some city council members later suggested fraud was involved in the deal and the disagreement was aired in various publications, but other parties argued the Keystone design was superior and better fitted for the project, and Keystone kept the contract. Keystone was Andrew Carnegie’s company and one of the first in his great steel empire. Keystone pioneered the use of iron in bridges–iron being less susceptible than other common materials to ravages of flood and fire–and the use of wrought iron rather than cast iron in longer bridge spans, because the cast iron tended to break on impact with other objects.

The surface of the first bridge was cedar blocks, which were selected because they muffled the sound of hard carriage wheels more than brick or cobblestone did. But the blocks could be slippery for horses when there was rain or frost, and this feature caused delays in crossings while the sun warmed and dried the bridge surface, according to St. Paul’s High Bridge. Despite these problems, the surface was not replaced until 1958.

The city’s reliance on the High Bridge was such that when the storm ravaged it in 1904, “There was no question … that the High Bridge would have to be rebuilt” (St. Paul’s High Bridge, p. 25). And when it was set to be demolished in 1985, a group of citizens held a funeral for the bridge, complete with hearse and flowers cast into the river. It had not only been designated as an historic site, but it had also acquired the status of a landmark.

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High Bridge Highs says, “It was the first place many of us took our guests from out of town. And it was THE place, bar none, for a view of the city skyline.” It was a place to watch fireworks, a place to get the trains running underneath to toot their whistles, a place for flying kites and paper airplanes, a place to climb stairs and girders (and sometimes get in trouble for it), and a place to watch barges and river traffic. During spring melts, the book says, neighbors participated in flood watches and carried coffee to the “stalwart public servants” in the shanties on the bridge, to see that the bridge was protected from errant barges, uprooted trees and various flotsam and jetsam being swept downstream.

The bridge has been the focus of controversy, praise, romance and criticism in its lifetime, both as the old High Bridge and as its reincarnation that we use today. It was touted as a bonanza for would-be suicides as well as a romantic promenade when it was first built, and was mourned in its demise almost a hundred years later. When the newer bridge was completed in 1987, there was a two-day celebration that culminated in a lighting ceremony. A manager for the construction company that built it said, “I’ve worked on longer bridges, and I’ve worked on higher bridges, but this bridge has commanded the most public interest of any project I’ve been involved with. It means a lot to St. Paul,” as quoted in Construction Bulletin (vol. 220, no. 1).

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The ornamental ironwork on the replacement was built using iron from the old bridge, according to Jack El-Hai in Lost Minnesota. Some stone from the old bridge was recycled into a retaining wall at the top of Ramsey Street where it intersects with Summit Avenue.

The best way to appreciate the grandeur of the High Bridge is to stop at the small park at the top, known as Cherokee Overlook Park (which you can reach by going left at the first stop light after you cross the bridge from below in St. Paul, then left again and left again, circling the block). Here at the top of the bridge is the best possible view of St. Paul, skirted by the long, graceful descent of the bridge itself into the flats across the Mississippi River.

January 2005, revised September 2016 and June 2018

 

 

 

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