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Wednesday
Jul172019

A Tale of Too Many Bridges

Article by Michael Rainville, Jr.

Photo credit: Skyline ArtEveryday, thousands of people cross the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, from those who are commuting to work and students arriving for class at DeLaSalle High School, to locals walking their dogs or going for a jog. We take our many bridges for granted these days, but it wasn’t always a luxury the citizens of the Twin Cities had. An important piece of infrastructure, this bridge helped industry and commerce blossom in the Mill City.

Before bridges started to pop up across the Mississippi River, ferries were the only way to cross when the ice cleared the river. In order to connect the two villages of Minneapolis and St. Anthony, businessmen Franklin Steele and John Stevens began operating a rope ferry in 1847 from Nicollet Island to Minneapolis to help travelers cross safely. Shortly after, in 1851, a bridge was built from St. Anthony to Nicollet Island. Steele and Stevens noticed how important commuting back and forth between the two villages was for the local economy and began discussing the possibility of building a bridge at the spot where they run their ferry service.

On March 4th, 1852, Steele, Stevens, and other investors started the Mississippi Bridge Company when they received a charter from the Territorial Legislature to build a bridge. The $36,000 bridge, or over $1,015,000 after inflation, was completed in December of 1854, and officially opened to the public on January 23rd, 1855. When the Father Louis Hennepin Bridge first opened, it was dubbed as the “link between the Atlantic and Pacific,” because it became the first bridge to span the Mississippi anywhere on the river. It wasn’t New Orleans, it wasn’t Memphis, it wasn’t St. Louis; Minneapolis is the true Gateway to the West.

The original anchors for the suspension can still be seen in First Bridge Park underneath the current Hennepin Avenue Bridge. Since the wooden suspension bridge was built by a private company, it was initially a toll bridge. Pedestrians paid 3¢, or 5¢ for a round trip, horses and mules cost 15¢, cows and oxen cost 10¢, and pigs and sheep cost 2¢. Because the bridge was small, and rather close to the river, there was a strict rule that you had to cross the bridge at a walking pace or slower. If they did catch you going faster than a walking pace, they would fine you $10! That doesn’t seem like much now, but the average day wage for those who worked in the mills was 25¢.

Photo of the first and second bridges taken in 1876 during the construction of the second bridge.

When the bridge first opened, the population of Minneapolis was roughly 480 residents, and St. Anthony had over 1,000. Only five years later in 1860, the populations quickly rose to 2,500 and 3,200 respectively. There is no doubt that the Hennepin Avenue Bridge was a major factor in the growth of both villages. In 1869, the Minneapolis Bridge Company’s charter expired, and Hennepin County purchased the bridge to become its new owner. In February of 1872, St. Anthony agreed to merge with Minneapolis to become one city and the ownership of the bridge once again changed hands, this time to the city of Minneapolis. The rapidly rising population, quickly growing milling industry in the city, and almost constant repairs to the bridge meant that it was close to obsolete. New plans to make a larger wooden suspension bridge came to fruition in February of 1877. During construction of the second bridge, the original was left up because taking away that crossing would have been devastating for the city and its residents. Once that second bridge was open, they tore down the original, the very first bridge to span the Mississippi River.

A couple decades later, the city needed a much larger bridge, so in 1888 they started construction on a steel arched bridge, moving away from the previous suspension bridges. The third bridge on this site opened to the public in 1891 and lasted almost 100 years. By the 1980s, city and county officials knew the third bridge was in dire need of repairs, and once a study was complete, they were split on whether they should invest in the almost 100-year-old bridge or build a state-of-the-art new bridge. Led by John Derus, who was also key in securing the future of the Stone Arch Bridge and the Merriam Street Bridge, the city and county officials decided to build a new bridge that the city would be proud of.

Photo of the second and third bridges in 1891 before the second was torn down.

The new, and current Father Louis Hennepin Bridge is once again a true suspension bridge. Two 150-foot-tall towers support the suspension for two separate bridge decks, thus making it the shortest suspension bridge to carry highway traffic built in modern times when it opened in 1990.

Now one of the most recognizable sites in Minneapolis, the Hennepin Avenue Bridge is featured on everything from postcards to t-shirts, and I’m sure it helps that it’s located right next to another Minneapolis icon, the Grain Belt Beer sign. The next time you traverse the Hennepin Avenue Bridge on your commute to work or your next bike ride, take a second to imagine crossing the bridge in 1855 when it was a revolutionary feat of engineering; the first bridge to span the Mississippi River.

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About Michael Rainville, Jr.

A 6th generation Minneapolitan, Michael Rainville Jr. received his B.A. in History from the University of St. Thomas, and is currently enrolled in their M.A. in Art History and Certificate in Museum Studies programs.

Michael is also an intern at the Hennepin History Museum and a lead guide at Mobile Entertainment LLC, giving Segway tours of the Minneapolis riverfront for 7+ years.

He can be reached at mrainvillejr@comcast.net.

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