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St. Paul's Original High Bridge

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Tinted color postcard of High bridge c.1905.

Tinted postcard of High bridge c.1905.

When St. Paul's High Bridge opened in 1889, only one bridge in the United States surpassed it in height and length. Built of wrought iron and designed for wagons, the High Bridge served mainly cars and trucks. It was demolished in 1985 after ninety-six years of service.

Until 1874 the city of St. Paul consisted almost entirely of what is now downtown. In that year the city expanded south across the Mississippi River by annexing what became known as the West Side. This area included the lowlands just across from downtown (the Flats), the bluff top that rose to the south, Prospect Park, and Cherokee Heights, all the way to the Dakota County line at Annapolis Street.

Integrating this vast area into St. Paul (the annexation increased the city's physical size by more than a third) required bridges. The first Wabasha Bridge between downtown and the Flats had gone up in 1859. The original Robert Street Bridge, also from downtown to the Flats, opened in 1886. One area, the high bluff country around Cherokee Heights, remained cut off, almost two hundred feet above and nearly a mile west of the Wabasha Bridge and the Flats. This isolation impeded development.

Mayor Robert A. Smith pushed for a third bridge. Smith was also at that time a state senator, and in January 1887 the legislature passed his bill authorizing St. Paul to issue $500,000 in bonds for a new bridge to join Mohawk Street on the south with Forbes Avenue on the north. The city council rewarded Smith by renaming Mohawk and Forbes Streets Smith Avenue.

The project presented formidable challenges. Mohawk Street ended on a bluff almost 200 feet above the river, Forbes eighty feet above the river on the other side. A bridge between them would have to be very tall and also very long, so that the slope would be gentle enough to accommodate horse-drawn vehicles making the climb.

Andrew Carnegie's Keystone Bridge Company of Pittsburgh got the contract, though not without a lawsuit. Its bid exceeded the next bid by $29,000, and a group of citizens brought suit so the city would accept the lower bid. The lawsuit failed, as Keystone was determined to be the more capable contractor. Work began in July 1887 and finished in May of 1889 at a cost of $479,878.

The finished product—2770 feet long, 191 feet tall at its highest point, and made mostly of wrought iron—made the High Bridge a marvel of its time for the combination of height and length. (New York's Brooklyn Bridge, by comparison, completed six years earlier, is more than twice as long but only 276 feet above the East River.) Though painted red it was no beauty; asymmetrical, slanting, unadorned, the High Bridge was a nineteenth-century contraption built for utility.

Mayor Smith made the first buggy ride over it on May 17, 1889. Sightseers came by the thousands, first to see it, then to walk it, then to use it. It probably opened for general use in late May.

In August of 1904 a storm with winds measured at 180 miles per hour hit the city. It took down the south five spans of the bridge, about six hundred feet, spilling them into the Mississippi below. At a repair cost of $61,000, the bridge re-opened the following summer.

Built for a modest volume of slow-moving wagons, the bridge soon had to accommodate a high volume of cars and trucks. As early as 1915 engineers concluded that the High Bridge was not well suited to the automobile era. Nevertheless it operated with only short interruptions from 1905 to 1958, when it closed for four months for removal of the original cedar block decking, and repaving. (Cedar blocks had been chosen originally because they were quieter under wagon wheels.) It closed again for repair for six weeks in 1977.

By the early 1980s bridge inspectors knew that the High Bridge could not last much longer. Some parts had corroded dangerously; others meant to move and flex had become frozen. The Minnesota Department of Transportation closed it on July 25, 1984. Seventy-six pounds of plastic explosives brought it down on February 24, 1985, an event witnessed by a crowd of thousands. The new bridge, a more graceful double-arched span, opened in July 1987.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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  • Related Resources

Bryan, Barbara and Constance Lepro. "Spanning a Century." Twin Cities (February 1985): 21–24.
http://www.writingthatmeansbusiness.net/img/articles/SpanningACentury.pdf

Hodapp, Susan. "Smith Avenue High Bridge (High Bridge)." Historic American Engineering Record MN-5, Typescript. Denver, CO: National Park Service, Rocky Mountain Regional Office, Department of the Interior, 1985. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/pnp/habshaer/mn/mn0000/mn0076/data/mn0076data.pdf

Millett, Larry. Twin Cities Then and Now. St. Paul: MNHS Press, 1996.

St. Paul's High Bridge 1889–1985, A Photo-Essay of the History of a St. Paul Landmark. Oakdale, MN: Minnesota Department of Transportation, 1985.
http://archive.leg.state.mn.us/docs/pre2003/other/851419.pdf.

Related Images

Tinted color postcard of High bridge c.1905.
Tinted color postcard of High bridge c.1905.
Map showing the physical size of the West Side of St. Paul (Ward 6), 1880.
Map showing the physical size of the West Side of St. Paul (Ward 6), 1880.
Black and white photoprint of high bridge construction c. November 1888.
Black and white photoprint of high bridge construction c. November 1888.
Black and white photoprint of high bridge construction c. January, 1889.
Black and white photoprint of high bridge construction c. January, 1889.
Black and white photoprint of high bridge construction c. January, 1889.
Black and white photoprint of high bridge construction c. January, 1889.
Black and white photoprint of high bridge construction c. March 1889
Black and white photoprint of high bridge construction c. March 1889
Black and white photoprint of High bridge c.1889.
Black and white photoprint of High bridge c.1889.
Black and white 8x10 photoprint c.1891.
Black and white 8x10 photoprint c.1891.
Black and white photoprint of High bridge after tornado August 20, 1904.
Black and white photoprint of High bridge after tornado August 20, 1904.
Black and white photoprint of High bridge c.1904.
Black and white photoprint of High bridge c.1904.
Black and white 8x10 photoprint of cars parked on the High bridge c.1915.
Black and white 8x10 photoprint of cars parked on the High bridge c.1915.
Black and white negative of High bridge c.1917–1926.
Black and white negative of High bridge c.1917–1926.
Black and white photograph of the demolition of the St. Paul High Bridge February 24, 1985.
Black and white photograph of the demolition of the St. Paul High Bridge February 24, 1985.
Black and white negative of High bridge c. February 1985.
Black and white negative of High bridge c. February 1985.

Turning Point

On August 20, 1904, high winds break apart the south six hundred feet of the bridge, dropping them into the Mississippi River 190 feet below. The High Bridge reopens the next summer and stays open, with short interruptions, for seventy-nine more years.

Chronology

1851

Treaties between the United States and Dakota Indians open the west side of the Mississippi River to white immigration.

1859

The Wabasha Bridge, joining St. Paul to the West Side, opens.

1874

St. Paul annexes the West Side as far south as what is now Annapolis Street-the border with Dakota County.

1886

The Robert Street Bridge, the second bridge built between downtown St. Paul and the West Side, opens.

1887

In January, the Minnesota Legislature authorizes St. Paul to issue $500,000 in bonds to pay for what will become known as the High Bridge.

1889

On May 17, the first vehicle, a buggy carrying Mayor Robert A. Smith, crosses the High Bridge.

1904

On August 20, a tornado brings down the bridge's five southerly spans, totaling 540 feet, of the High Bridge.

1905

The bridge re-opens during the summer.

1958

Between May and September, the bridge's original cedar-block deck is replaced after sixty-nine years of service.

1977

The bridge's load limit is reduced to three tons.

1985

The High Bridge is demolished on February 24.

1987

The new High Bridge opens on July 26.