Note: This is part II of the series on tracking down the history of a historic bridge. To view part I, please click here.
After going through some useful tips on info-tracking a historic bridge (similar to that of genealogical research), part II looks at a pair of success stories of how a historic bridge’s life was tracked down through research. Both historic bridges mentioned here were relocated at least once, yet thanks to the research conducted by historians and members of the state agencies, they were able to determine the origin of the bridge’s history, tracing its life from start to present. One of the bridges is now enjoying its third life in service, even though it was close to becoming a pile of scrap metal, whereas the other no longer exists as attempts to relocate it a third time failed due to a tragedy. In either case, they are both worth mentioning and serving as poster boys for other bridges, whose lifespan remains to be researched.
Example 1: Hansen’s Ford Bridge in Allamakee County
Location: Upper Iowa River at Ellingson Bridge Road just east of the Winneshiek/Allamakee County Border
Type: Two-span Whipple through truss bridge with Wrought Iron Bridge Company-style Town lattice portal bracing
Dimension: 278 feet long (Each span was 138 feet); 15.8 feet wide
Status: No longer exists. Destroyed during a relocation attempt in 1994 and later scrapped.
Also known as Ellingson Bridge due to its proximity to the family farmstead, the Hansen’s Ford Bridge was one of only a handful of bridges that featured two spans of a Whipple through truss bridge. The portal bracing is a textbook resemblance of the one used by the Wrought Iron Bridge Company in Canton, Ohio, the one that built the bridge. Research done by the late James Hippen of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and later followed up by other pontists (including yours truly) revealed that the bridge was relocated once in its lifetime. It was known as the Pierce Bridge and was originally constructed in 1878 over the Cedar River west of Osage in Mitchell County. It was one of three bridges that served the county seat. When officials wanted to grade the main highway (now known as Iowa Hwy. 9) and with that build a wider bridge, the bridge was dismantled and transported three counties over towards the east, while a new bridge was built in its place. The truss spans were constructed over the Upper Iowa River east of the county border with neighboring Winneshiek County, replacing a wooden trestle bridge. This all happened in 1939. Apart from newspaper articles and post cards, like this one, the key evidence proving its relocation was found in the blue print provided by the Allamakee County Highway Department.
Sadly though attempts to relocate the bridge for the second time failed. The bridge was supposed to be given over to a private group to be erected over the Yellow River in the southern part of the county, yet as the spans were being hoisted from the river, they fell apart and collapsed. The decision was made to scrap the bridge. It is unknown what caused the disaster, but it is assumed that age combined with lack of maintenance may have played a role in the failed attempt to give the bridge a new life off the public road system.
Example 2: Silverdale Bridge
Location: Manning Avenue on Gateway Trail east of Mahtomedi in Washington County, Minnesota
Type: Wrought iron pin-connected Camelback Pratt through truss bridge with Town lattice portal bracing
Dimension: 162 feet long and 17 feet wide
Status: In use as a recreational trail
The Silverdale Bridge has a very unique history for not only was it relocated four times- untypical of any truss bridge on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean- but it was a mystery bridge that took many years of research to solve. In particular, the question that was on the minds of personnel at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) was where it originated from and who built the bridge?
The bridge was built in 1877, using wrought iron instead of steel. The evidence was through a laboratory study conducted in 2002. Yet visual studies concluded that the bridge was first built over Sauk Lake in Sauk Centre, in Stearns County. This was based on collaboration between MnDOT, the Historical Society in Sauk Centre and locals affiliated with the bridge. While a plaque was located on the top part of the portal bracing, up until now, it has not been identified as to who constructed the bridge, let alone whether the plaque still exists or if it has long since been destroyed. It is unknown whether any information from newspapers as to who built it would have helped.
The bridge’s life almost came to an untimely end, when it was replaced in 1935 with a steel stringer bridge and the truss bridge was relocated to a storage yard. Interestingly enough, the stringer span survived only 65 years before being replaced with a concrete span, which still serves main traffic today. It was salvaged two years later and was relocated over 500 kilometers northeast to Koochiching County in northern Minnesota. After replacing the strut bracings with one consisting of an X-laced strut bracings with 45° heels and trimming the curved heel bracings off the bridge’s portals, the truss bridge was re-erected over the Little Fork River between the villages of Rauch and Silverdale, serving Minnesota Hwy. 65. The portal bracings were replaced in 1964 after a truck damaged the northern entrance. Upon its removal from the highway system in 2008, the bridge remained in tact with the portal bracings that were a sixth of its height. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998 and when it was scheduled to be replaced, MnDOT placed the bridge on the “most valuable historic bridge to preserve” list with hopes that someone will take the bridge and use it for recreational purposes. Fortunately, Washington County stepped up to purchase the bridge to be used as part of the Gateway Trail, connecting Mahtomedi and Stillwater. The bridge was dismantled and transported to the Manning Avenue site, where it was refurbished and reassembled. Portal bracings resemble the ones used at Sauk Centre and at the Little Fork crossing prior to 1964. Before it was erected over Manning Avenue, it was painted black. Governmental shutdown in July 2011 delayed the opening of the bridge by six months. But since November 2011, the bridge has been serving the bike trail, its third life but one that will last another 150+ years if maintained properly and if the story of how the bridge was built, transported and rebuilt, let alone how its history was researched, is passed down to the next generations.
1. Sauk Centre was the birth place of author Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930. He is famous for the Fabulous Four, four novels dealing with the flaws of American society: Main Street, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry and Arrowsmith. He also wrote over 100 short stories and other novels. His birthplace is now a museum and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
2. Minnesota Highway 65 used to be part of US Hwy. 65 from 1926 until the portion was handed over to the state in 1934. The highway starts near International Falls and terminates in Minneapolis with half the highway being an expressway between Cambridge and Minneapolis. US Hwy. 65, which used to run through Minneapolis and St. Paul from its southern terminus of the state of Louisiana, now terminates in Albert Lea, Minnesota. Parts of it was integrated into the Jefferson Highway.
Author’s Note: The author wishes to thank Pete Wilson at MnDOT and Brian Ridenour of the Allamakee County Highway Department as well as the Ellingson family for help with this information.