The history of European settlement in the Twin Cities is a story of rivers and rails. St. Paul, the northernmost port on the Mississippi River, owes its existence to river commerce. To this day, the length of the Mississippi that curves through St. Paul is very much a working river, with four busy barge terminals. The Minnesota River between St. Paul and Shakopee is also busy with barges.
Superimposed on this network of waterways is a complex web of busy freight railroads. In fact, a full 5 percent of the nation’s freight traffic goes through St. Paul on a daily basis. Seeking routes with the fewest hills in order to minimize fuel usage, these railroads mostly follow the same corridors as the river barges. Through most of the Twin Cities, one or both sides of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers are flanked by active railroads.
From the beginning, the key to coexistence of rail and river traffic has been a half dozen movable swing and lift bridges. Although Duluth’s Arial Lift Bridge and Stillwater’s Lift Bridge are significant tourist attractions, many Twin Cities lift and swing bridges operate in underappreciated obscurity in river bottom flood plains. Let’s take a bicycle tour!
Lilydale Swing Bridge – Omaha Road Bridge Number 15
Probably the best known movable bridge in St. Paul is the Omaha Road Bridge Number 15, a “bobtailed” swing bridge that uses a concrete counterweight to balance an asymmetrical span. A popular urban legend says that a Lilydale landowner refused to allow the bridge to swing over their property, which is why it has an asymmetrical design. In truth, the design is to accommodate the river’s navigation channel, which runs close the the west river bank.
Built in 1915 as part of a rail line connecting Chicago and Omaha, the bridge remains largely unchanged since its construction. It is now part of the Union Pacific Railroad.
The bridge also spans two important St. Paul historical sites, both of which are now completely lost to history. On the east bank, the bridge is just downriver from Fountain Cave, the site of Pigs Eye Parrant’s first settlement beyond the bounds of Fort Snelling, where St. Paul began. The cave itself was destroyed by construction of Shepard Road in the 1960s. The surrounding floodplain is difficult to access below the highway’s steep embankment. If you visit, you’ll find little evidence of human activity but lots of signs of beaver, deer and geese. And lots of nettle.
On the west bank near the bridge, the entire neighborhood of Lilydale was erased after the flood of 1968. Lilydale’s history seems almost forgotten, with no historical markers or physical evidence except chunks of concrete along the riverbank — remains of the foundations of dozens of houses and buildings that were bulldozed in the early 1970s. Little information about old Lilydale can be found in print, either. One of the most comprehensive descriptions of the neighborhood can be found in the comments on a blog post by the editor of the West Saint Paul Reader.
How to get there: Follow Water Street through Lilydale until you see the viaduct which leads to the bridge.
Chicago Great Western – Robert Street Lift Bridge
About two miles downstream from Lillydale is the Robert Street Lift Bridge in downtown St. Paul. Built in 1913 and also known as the Great Western Bridge, this bridge is remarkable for just how unremarkable it seems to be. Despite being one of only four lift bridges crossing the Mississippi, the bridge doesn’t hold any particular status as a local landmark or destination.
Partly, this may be because of its elegant neighbor, the Robert Street Bridge. Its unique “rainbow arch” design was chosen to accommodate both river traffic and the lift bridge at its flank. And, although the lift bridge once served passenger trains heading into Union Depot, it has long been used only by freight trains that traverse the city largely out of sight and unnoticed.
A test of the bridge’s historical significance is close at hand, however. It’s been slated by the Union Pacific Railroad for demolition, to be replaced with a modern bascule draw bridge. A public comment process begins next month. Although the lift bridge undoubtedly qualifies for preservation as an historic structure, it is unlikely to be preserved due to its age and condition.
Stillwater Lift Bridge
The Stillwater Lift Bridge is one of two movable bridges in the Twin Cities that did not serve a railroad. Built in 1931, it is one of our newest movable bridges yet beloved by history lovers more than all our other bridges combined. As the Minnesota Department of Transportation explains:
It has won the hearts of many residents and visitors and earned a top place in Stillwater’s iconography. The bridge has inspired artists to sketch, paint, take photographs, and write poetry. Images of the bridge have appeared on mugs, bumper stickers, baseball caps, police cars and letterheads. A local group proclaimed, ‘The Lift Bridge is the logo and trademark of historic Stillwater. It is to Stillwater what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, the Golden Gate Bridge [is] to San Francisco, the Brooklyn Bridge [is] to New York, and the Gateway Arch [is] to St. Louis.’ As fans of the bridge have observed, ‘In a town filled with antiques, the bridge itself is a prominent antique.’
Certainly the bridge occupies a picturesque setting between the steep banks of the St. Croix Valley, but why is it held in such reverence while similar lift bridges in St. Paul and Hastings are not? Perhaps because it serves a roadway, not a freight railway, and locals have years of personal history crossing it or (famously) waiting to cross it in a long line of idling cars weaving through downtown Stillwater. Indeed, traffic congestion has been driving calls for the bridge’s replacement since the late 1950s. Perhaps the community’s love of the Stillwater Lift Bridge is a fondness achieved only through decades of shared suffering.
When a massively expensive bridge for Highway 36 was built in 2017 just south of the lift bridge, the old bridge was preserved as a bicycle and pedestrian crossing, transforming Stillwater into a popular destination for local cyclists. It connects to the St. Croix Crossing Loop Trail, which loops a purposeless 4.7 miles from the lift bridge, up the bluff in Wisconsin and down back across the new Highway 36 bridge. The loop trail doesn’t connect with Wisconsin Highway 35 at the new bridge, where a steep goat path is the only access to the high bridge crossing. Nor does it offer any improved connection with Hudson to the south or westward along Highway 36. The loop trail is for recreational purposes only, not transportation.
Hudson Swing Bridge – Chicago & North Western St. Croix Crossing
Built in 1912, the Hudson Swing Bridge spans a wide and sandy stretch of the St. Croix River just north of I-94. The river channel runs close to the steep bluffs on the Minnesota side, and the bridge is close to shore. With its fenders clogged with driftwood, the bridge has a somewhat ramshackle appearance. The Wisconsin side is a long pair of wye shaped causeways, one of which dams the Willow river and forms Lake Mallalieu just north of Hudson.
The bridge itself is all but inaccessible on both sides of the river except by boat. Although it’s possible to bike across the I-94 bridge, there’s no bike infrastructure to speak of between Hudson and Stillwater on either side of the St. Croix. A local group, the St. Croix Bike & Pedestrian Coalition, has been working to establish a trail on the Wisconsin side using an abandoned railroad bridge at the mouth of the Willow river. Unfortunately, obtaining funding and right of way has been an uphill challenge. One can only imagine what might have been possible if the resources used to create the Stillwater/Houlton bike loop had been used instead to connect with Hudson.
Hastings Lift Bridge – Milwaukee Road Mississippi River Crossing
The newest bridge on our tour, the Hastings Lift Bridge was built in 1981 and is the second of four lift bridges that cross the Mississippi. It’s a heavy, wide and sturdy structure about two miles south of Lock & Dam #2 that serves the main freight line between Chicago and St. Paul as well as Amtrak’s Empire Builder. The bridge is easily accessible via the pleasant riverfront park in downtown Hastings.
Hastings deserves more attention as a Twin Cities bicycling destination. Except for about two and a half miles of dirt road, the 30 riverfront miles between downtown St. Paul and Hastings is a scenic trail with exceptional views and long stretches through secluded forests and prairies. By next fall, it should be even more amazing when Dakota County Parks completes the missing link of trail and reintroduces bison to Spring Lake Park Reserve. Plus, you can visit the next two movable bridge sites along the way.
St. Paul Union Pacific Bridge at Kaposia Landing
Spanning the Mississippi between South St. Paul and Pigs Eye Island, the St. Paul Union Pacific Swing Bridge is one of the busiest freight routes into the Twin Cities from the south. Built in 1910, this bridge has survived floods, derailments, barge strikes and railroad mergers. The only accessible viewpoint is from South St. Paul’s Kaposia Landing Park.
On the east bank, the rail line crosses Pigs Eye Island and wraps around the sewage treatment plant, both of which are off limits to the public. The entire east bank below Pigs Eye is remarkable for its vast amount of public land, all of which is undeveloped and wild yet bound by river and industry. Large parcels belong to the sewage treatment plant, but Pigs Eye Regional Park has 400 acres of floodplain woodlands and prairies, including a reclaimed dump site and an island Heron Rookery, home to hundreds of nesting herons, egrets, cormorants, and pelicans.
How to get there: Follow the Robert Piram Trail to the northeast corner of Kaposia Landing Park.
Rock Island Swing Bridge
About six miles downriver from Kaposia Landing, the Rock Island Swing Bridge no longer swings. Its approach trestles, however, have been preserved as a unique pedestrian pier jutting out into the river as part of Inver Grove Heights’ Swing Bridge Park.
Built in 1895, the Rock Island Swing Bridge was a rare double-decked bridge with trains crossing on top and a toll road for cars underneath. Rail traffic ceased in 1980, the toll road closed in 1999 and the eastern half of the bridge was demolished in 2009.
Dan Patch Swing Bridge
Built in 1908, the Dan Patch Swing Bridge is locked open in a state of isolated purgatory deep in the Minnesota River Bottoms between Bloomington and Savage. The Dan Patch Line, named by the local celebrity entrepreneur Marion Savage after his famous race horse, runs from Northfield to Minneapolis. But no train has run on the Dan Patch since the 1990s.
The swing bridge once included a single-lane roadway deck next to the railway, but this was abandoned in the early 1980s. Today, the bridge is owned by Twin Cities & Western Railroad, which has maintained it and hinted they may reopen the line to serve the Port of Savage.
The line would also make an excellent commuter train route from the southwest suburbs to Minneapolis, but staunch opposition from wealthy Bloomington and Edina homeowners has scuttled any such development for over two decades. In fact, in 2002 the state Legislature passed a law that prohibits the state, the Metropolitan Council or local railroad authorities from studying or even discussing commuter rail service on the Dan Patch Line. The law, which remains in effect today, even required the state transportation commissioner to delete all references to the Dan Patch Line in the state’s transportation plans.
And so, the Dan Patch Swing Bridge sits motionless in the middle of the Minnesota River, a rusting relic of the past which, if wisdom prevails, may yet play a role in the greener transportation of the future.
All photos by the author