Today, I want to continue to look at some of the substantial bicycle and pedestrian improvements planned in the Bloomington area. The first part took a look at the plans to complete a major missing link in our paved trail network through the river bottoms. These second and third parts are look at a separate but intertwined project that’s just as massive and significant, the restoration and reopening of the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge. (I’ve chosen to consistently refer to it as the “Old Cedar Bridge,” it was originally known as the “Long Meadow Bridge” to distinguish it from the river span).
Inception of the Bridge
Although the bridge was only part of the state trunk highway system for a generation, history is intertwined with it. In the old days, if you wanted to travel south from Minneapolis, you first had to travel to St. Paul, then cross the High Bridge and head out on the old Dodd Road. Then you could take a road through Farmington to Northfield to Faribault to Albert Lea that eventually became part of the Jefferson Highway and later on was designated Trunk Highway #1. Directly south of Minneapolis lay nothing but ferries (that had existed since the 1850s) and routes suitable for local travel.
It wasn’t long until demand for improvements were made. Around 1890 two new bridges were funded by the state legislature as part of a generation-long period of increasing state involvement in roads before the formal establishment of the state highway system. One bridge replaced the ferry at Bloomington Ferry Road, and one extended Cedar Avenue across the river. Although the river spans were long-lasting steel swing bridges, the original bridge over Long Meadow Lake was a rudimentary wooden trestle. These choices were not without controversy. Minneapolis business interests favored a crossing at Lyndale Avenue, the most direct route to the south. It was thought that extending Cedar Avenue would be of more benefit to St. Paul, which already had well established roads to the South, and that Bloomington Ferry was way out of the way.
During the 1910s, it became obvious that the automobile was the wave of the future for personal travel, and trucks for commerce was imminent, and demand for more and better roads continued. Although the marked auto trails system provided consistent guidance, actual maintenance fell to a labyrinthine assortment of agencies, and the maintenance was anything but consistent. Momentum grew for the state to assume maintenance of roads of statewide significance, and the Minnesota Highway Commission was formed in 1911. The state provided aid for major roads and standardized plans for bridges. In turn structures needed to meet state standards, which the Old Cedar Bridge obviously did not. In 1912 the Dunn Amendment was passed, providing for changes to the Minnesota constitution to allow a trunk highway system. In 1917 the Minnesota Department of Highways was formed with Charles M. Babcock as the first commissioner, and in 1920 the state constitution was amended. Finally in 1921 legislation was passed and the trunk highway system debuted.
With regards to the Bloomington area, two more bridges were planned as part of this ramp-up of state involvement in major highways. A crossing at Lyndale Avenue and the replacement of the wooden trestle on Cedar Avenue with today’s steel structure. World War I delayed building, but after the war plans resumed. The original plan still seemed to be that Cedar Avenue would be the main route southward from Minneapolis; my 1920 map shows a proposed road between the bridge and the existing north-south road to the High Bridge and Farmington and it was paved from Minneapolis to the new bridge.
But Babcock favored Lyndale Avenue, replacing an old ferry at the foot of Hopkins Road. Then focus shifted to improving the even more direct route, first with a cutoff from the bridge to Farmington (what is now County 50), then a direct route south to Faribault which became US 65 and then I-35. Here’s the trunk highway system about 1925, after all the routes that were planned were actually laid out. Route 1 was the main route north and south of the metro, with cutoffs from Minneapolis (Routes 50 and 63) which took a few years to implement leading to it.
As a side note, despite Babcock’s role in advocating and creating the trunk highway and his national profile (he was president of the American Association of Highway Officials) his career was cut short. As evidenced that almost from the beginning politicians have fancied themselves as highway engineers, Babcock was fired by Governor Floyd B. Olson for refusing to accept an absolutely massive expansion of the trunk highway system. Some of which, like MN 100 Beltline or MN 55 west of downtown, were worthy candidates. But many of which were both then and today extremely dubious inclusions for the trunk highway network. This included a portion of MN 65 through the north woods that sees and average annual daily total traffic of 30, and spurs to serve the unincorporated hamlet of Island View and a private resort on Lake of the Woods. Today, I doubt many people know or care who Babcock Trail was named after and his legacy to the state.
The Bridge Opens
In late 1920 the Old Cedar Bridge opened, at the cost of $114,940. It was Hennepin County Bridge #55, but also assigned a state bridge number, #3145. It was a maintenance nightmare from the beginning. and there were calls for its replacement as soon as 1956. Ten foot lanes may have been adequate in the early days when the only traffic was a car now and then, and semi trucks weren’t as prevalent. Early trunk highways had 9 foot lanes as standard. But even by the 1950s it was considered awkwardly narrow, and both the railing and structural elements being hit by vehicles was a regular occurrence.
Although neglected, this neglect also led to its preservation, as the old Lyndale Bridge was demolished when I-35W opened. The bridge wasn’t even part of the trunk highway system until MN 36 was extended in the mid 1950s. In 1962 the concrete deck was replaced with a wooden one. As late as 1970 there were only around 11,700 vehicles a day using it, but around that time east Bloomington approached becoming fully built out.
As the American Dream crossed the river, regional commuter traffic increase dramatically, and with the Met Stadium and the “New Zoo” there was renewed interest in improvements. Finally in 1980, what long term residents like myself still call the “New Cedar Bridge” opened. The old 1891 swing span across the river was demolished, and the Old Cedar Bridge was transferred to the City of Bloomington, against their wishes, to provide access to the river bottoms.
Unlike more recent turnbacks where the road was fully reconstructed, Bloomington got the well-used bridge “as-is.” They did not have the funding or wherewithal to maintain it, so it continued to deteriorate. In 1993 it was closed to motorized vehicles. With no road access, this marked the end of the river bottom farms, and they became part of the wildlife refuge through sale and tax forfeiture. Even without paved trails in the river bottoms, it was still frequently used by bicyclists and pedestrians. Then finally the Old Cedar Bridge was closed to all traffic in 2002, severing a key link for bicycles across the river.
The Bickering Begins
From then on, there was a desire to replace the connection, but the bickering went on for over a decade. Bloomington saw themselves as in the business of transportation, not historic preservation, and sought the cheapest way possible to provide that service. Bloomington has insisted it couldn’t pay for repairs; that it shouldn’t have to do it alone for what is a regional amenity; that it shouldn’t have to deal with something that will require extensive maintenance in the future.
Meanwhile, as early as 1994 there were calls for the preservation. Through-truss bridges aren’t by themselves historic (two are being demolished in the Lanesboro area this year). The Old Cedar Bridge is one of only three truss bridges in Minnesota that predate the trunk highway system, and five sections on a Parker Through-Truss design is uncommon.
Nor was the bridge designed to be aesthetic. Trusses were just the way longer bridges were built in the era of cheap, abundant steel and immature concrete technology; thinking that they look nice came later after most of them were demolished. The New Cedar Bridge (and its contemporary, the Bong Bridge) were the last ones in the area built with massive structural elements above the bridge deck that were driven by engineering needs. The steel arches on the Hastings and Lowry Avenue bridges, and the concrete towers and steel cables on the St. Croix Crossing and Hennepin Avenue Bridge are there because people liked they way they look, and they cost substantially more than a generic concrete bridge would have.
The original proposal was an earthen causeway to be built in conjunction with a new gas pipeline. Fish and Wildlife said no, so from then on Bloomington pursued funding to demolish the structure and build a new one, which would have been half the cost and easier to maintain. There was a 2008 study, and a bill that would have provided money for demolition and replacement. One idea was to set the old trusses on the new bridge as decoration. Then the bridge got officially designated as historic and in 2013 the federal government made it clear that they would not allow demolition. With only one option now, Bloomington commissioned a 2014 study for rehabilitation, and thanks to longtime local Representative Ann Lenczewski, $14.3 Million in state and federal funds was allocated.
Obviously, the bridge is badly missed, but I hope I have provided an explanation why it took so long to sort things out. Here’s a map of the bridge in context, showing how it and the soon to be built I-35W trail crossing will connect existing and proposed trails in Bloomington and Minneapolis to the rest of the Twin Cities to south of the river.
Part Two will continue with some of the philosophical issues with restoration, and give an overview of the construction, and I hope to be there on opening day for a phototour as Part Three.