Bridges of the Twin Cities

Sightseeing of the Mississippi River in Minnesota

The Father of Waters is still a fairly slender fellow as he passes through the Twin Cities, which means it is a strategically good place to build bridges.  There are 38 through the Metro Area: 26 for vehicles and 12 for railroads.

Here are a few of their stories.

Hennepin Avenue Bridge, Minneapolis

Before 1855, it was a pain to cross the river.  People would line up for miles to take a rope-pulled ferryboat in Minneapolis.  In 1855 that all changed with the construction of the Hennepin Avenue Bridge,  first anywhere over the Mississippi.

Getting across didn’t come cheap.  It was a toll bridge.  A horse and buggy cost a quarter; a horse or cow, 8 cents; a sheep or swine, 2 cents.  For one of us two-leggeds, a nickel.

Before its construction, residents of two villages --- St. Anthony on the east bank, and Minneapolis on the west --- could only stare and insult one another from the distance between banks.   But once the Hennepin Avenue Bridge was built, it wasn’t long before the two cities merged, and where once there were triplet cities (Minneapolis, Saint Paul, and Saint Anthony), now there were only twins.

Today’s bridge, built in 1990, is the fourth iteration of the original.   Like the original, it is a cable suspension bridge.  This style was not required by engineering necessity, but it was designed in this manner to pay homage to that first bridge, which was also cable suspension.  Hence, today, it is one of the shortest cable suspension bridges for vehicle traffic in the world.

Stone Arch Bridge

This massive, gracefully-curved beauty has become an icon of Minneapolis.  It was completed in 1883 for James J. Hill’s railway, which eventually came to be known as the Great Northern.

It stands as a tribute to the engineering genius of the day, not to mention to Hill’s bull-dog tenacity and his refusal to take “It can’t be done” for an answer.  This attitude later became handy as his railroad found its way through the Rocky Mountains…before there were even roads!

Engineers argued that a train’s weight, vibrations and stress would be too much for a curved, stone bridge.  It became known in the day as “Hill’s Folly.”  But the project went on.  The bridge was built and countless trains passed over it without incident.   With the decline of rail passengers, the last train passed over the Stone Arch in 1978.

After years of careful restoration, the bridge was re-opened in 1994 for pedestrian and bicyclist enjoyment.  Today, it is one of the very best walks in the Cities.  Lots to see: old mills, the Guthrie Theater, St. Anthony Falls, the upper most lock, blue herons and other birds, and even huge fish swimming around below you.

35W Bridge Collapse

It was rush hour, August 1st, 2007.  The 35W Bridge was filled with traffic, slowed to a crawl by road construction.  There were big piles of sand and gravel, heavy equipment and the vibrations of air hammers.  All this was too much for the old bridge.

WATCH 35W Bridge collapse.

In an instant, it collapsed.  Thirteen died, many more were injured.  It could have been much worse.  A school bus filled with kids fell, but fortunately near an end of the bridge, before it was over the water.  But it sat perilously on the edge.

It was one of those moments when everyone can say what they were doing when they heard about it, as well as, when was the last time they crossed over the bridge.

A few hours before, I left off some tour guests from India at the Holiday Inn located at the foot of the bridge.  We had not driven over it. Their hotel later that day became headquarters for the rescue. 

There is a memorial near the west side of the bridge for the victims.

The Smith Avenue Hight Bridge

This is the highest and longest bridge of the Mississippi River through the metro area. 

A founder and first head pilot of Northwest Airlines was Charles “Speed” Holman.  He was a barnstorming stunt pilot.  In an unsubstantiated story,  he reportedly flew under the bridge upside down.

His wife was later asked for verification.  She couldn’t say, but did say he had flown her right side up under the Mendota Bridge on their honeymoon.

(Thanks to City on Seven Hills by Gareth Hiebert for this story.  Pogo Press; St. Paul, MN, 1999)

There are 38 bridges through the Twin Cities.  These are the stories of a few of them.

See also these sections on architecture in Minneapolis and St. Paul





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Doug, We all enjoyed your tour so much! It did seem like all of us "resonated" - didn't it? It truly made our trip to the Twin Cities something we will remember for a long time (instead of just another "in-and-out of the hotel" conference experience.) You obviously have a gift for providing tours and for storytelling!

Connie F.
Kearney, NE
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