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Wednesday
Jan162019

The Stone Arch Bridge: A Minneapolis Icon

Article by Michael Rainville, Jr.

I know, I know, I’m surprised it took me eleven months to finally write about the Stone Arch Bridge too, but alas, the time has come. This grandiose railroad bridge is one of Minneapolis’ most iconic destinations, and the second oldest continually used bridge on the entire Mississippi River. It is featured on postcards, t-shirts, hats, posters, and everything in between. Not only does the bridge provide emblematic imagery, but it is an essential component of this city’s history as it has contributed to the successful milling and railroad operations in the area as well as the revitalization of the riverfront.

The 1870s was the first of many booming decades Minneapolis has seen. Both sides of the Mississippi River were united under one city, lumber mills were hitting their stride, and flour mills were starting to turn some heads. Local business owners quickly noted that having only one way to bring goods and commerce across the river, the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, was starting to hold the city back. During this time, railroads were also becoming vital to the growth of the United States, and the majority of tracks in the Twin Cities were on the east side of the river. These local business owners came together in 1881 and decided to work with James J. Hill, a local railroad owner, to construct a bridge to cross the Mighty Mississippi that would then lead trains to a brand-new Minneapolis Union Depot.

"Mill Pond at Minneapolis" by Alexis Jean Fournier, which is a part of MIA's collection.

The bridge from 1900

Acquiring land on both sides of the river was not as easy as first thought. While building a railroad bridge received mostly positive praise, the mill owners along the river had a hard time parting with their land, which no one can blame them for. In a perfect world, the new bridge would have crossed perpendicular to the river, because it would take less time and materials to complete. However, this land issue forced the bridge to be build diagonally across the river heading upstream on the west side. James J. Hill and Co. used this to their advantage and built the Minneapolis Union Depot about a third of a mile upstream from the bridge, which allowed the trains to roll right into the depot instead of having to use a roundhouse. At the end of the day, it worked out for everyone.

The Sauk Rapids granite and Mankato limestone bridge contributed an unthinkable amount to the industrial growth of Minneapolis, and eventually the northern and western parts of the United States. Once the Stone Arch Bridge was up and running, James J. Hill rapidly continued his pursuit to expand his railroad empire. Throughout the next decades his railroad acquisitions would become the Great Northern Railway, famous for connecting Chicago to the Pacific Northwest which contributed to the speedy development of the American frontier. While Hill is almost always overshadowed by his empire builder colleagues, such as Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie, he is just as important, especially in the land west of the Mississippi River as his legacy has shown.

One of the more major renovations of the Stone Arch Bridge came between 1961 and 1963 when the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam was built. Everything was going according to plan up until the inaugural barge attempted to make its way into the lock. Unfortunately, it took about three hours for that to happen, because it had to maneuver around the arches. To fix this, the railroad company offered to tear down the bridge and build a new one. Even though Urban Renewal was very popular in Downtown Minneapolis, the city was not going to let this historic and iconic bridge be torn down, so there was a compromise. If the city could fix the problem without disrupting the bridge’s train traffic, the bridge could stay. What ended up happening was that a 200-foot metal truss was prefabricated up in Northeast Minneapolis. When the first train of the day crossed the bridge, two of the twenty-three arches were blown out, the truss was lowered in, secured, and about six hours later, the next train crossed the bridge with no problems. When that train approached, a few thousand people gathered on a hill on the west bank of the river to see if the new addition would hold up. I don’t know what they were hoping for, but I’ll be honest, it would be kind of cool to see a train plummet into the river. How many people would get to see they’ve seen that? It’d be like a real-life movie!

As the milling industry left Minneapolis, the amount of trains crossing the bridge quickly decreased, and in 1978, the bridge officially stopped all railroad operations. During the next decade it became apparent that the vacant bridge was a safety hazard, so in 1989 the Hennepin County commissioners, led by John Derus who also established the Merriam Street Bridge, purchased the bridge and began the process of restoring it for future use.

Contemporary photo of the bridge. Photo credit

In 1994, the old railroad bridge was converted into a pedestrian bridge, and for twenty-four years, millions of residents and tourists have enjoyed the bridge. From artists and photographers to joggers and people enjoying a fabulously narrated Segway tour, generations have appreciated what the Stone Arch Bridge has done for our city and riverfront, and hopefully we can cherish this ambitious and monumental bridge for years to come. Thank you to Governor Dayton for ensuring it will happen, as reported in this Minnesota Daily article.

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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 a lead guide at Mobile Entertainment LLC, giving Segway tours of the Minneapolis riverfront for 6+ years.

He can be reached at mrainvillejr@comcast.net.

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