Saturday Single No. 158

Originally posted October 31, 2009

There are once again three bridges funneling traffic across the Mississippi River here in St. Cloud, as there have been for most of my life.

There were, however, only two here when I was born: The bridge connecting St. Germain Street, St. Cloud’s main street, with East St. Germain Street; and the Tenth Street Bridge, which crossed the river near what was then St. Cloud State Teachers College. They were old already, the St. Germain Bridge having been built in 1894 and the Tenth Street Bridge – barely two vehicles wide by the time the larger cars of the 1950s rolled around – having gone up in 1892, connecting Tenth Street on the west bank with the east side’s Michigan Avenue.

I don’t recall that those two bridges had names other than the functional labels of St. Germain Bridge and Tenth Street Bridge. It seems, however, that one of the major concerns of public works in the last half-century has been that those works be named. Thus, the 1970 replacement for the St. Germain Bridge was Veterans Bridge. (To be fair, “St. Germain Bridge” would not have worked for the new span, as the alignment was changed and the bridge connected East St. Germain Street with First Street North.) And when the Tenth Street Bridge was demolished in the mid-1980s, its taller and graceful replacement was reasonably tagged University Bridge.

Neither of those names is awful. It’s just that, as a culture, we seem to invest a great deal more time these days deciding what to call something than seems to really be required. Let’s build it, slap a functional name on it and move to the next thing. But in the mid-twentieth century, the folks responsible for building and naming a new bridge through St. Cloud, well, they got stupid.

The new bridge was part of State Highway 23, which sliced through old neighborhoods in St. Cloud and then headed northeast to Duluth and southwest to the prairie. I don’t remember the old neighborhoods on the west side of town; the project took place between 1957 and 1959, starting when I was three. But the project included a bridge across the river located about a block from the apartment building where we were living as 1957 began, and I vaguely remember Dad going outside and taking pictures. (He evidently returned several times to take pictures of the progress; we’ve found boxes of slides showing the bridge and the project near completion, views that had to be taken after we moved about six blocks to the house on Kilian Boulevard.)

At any rate, when the Highway 23 bridge was completed, it needed – absolutely had to have – a name. I have no idea who came up with the idea, but he (in the late 1950s, it was almost certainly a man) ought to be the charter inductee into the Lame Bridge Name Hall of Fame. The city and state leaders dubbed the new span the DeSoto Bridge, in honor of Hernando DeSoto, supposedly the first European to see the Mississippi River.

It turns out that Ol’ Hernando did in fact see the river in May of 1541. Was he the first European to do so? Wikipedia says, “It is unclear whether he, as it is claimed, was the first European to see the great river. However, his expedition is the first to be documented in official reports as seeing the river.” But there is a problem with commemorating DeSoto’s achievement by naming a St. Cloud bridge for him: DeSoto came upon the Mississippi very near what is now the city of Memphis, Tennessee, about nine hundred miles south of here. Ol’ Hernando had nothing at all to do with the portion of North America that became Minnesota, except for the very thin idea that the water he saw there had once flowed through here (and I doubt that anyone – even the dimwit who proposed the name – offered that as justification).

As stupid as the name was, not a lot of people paid attention. Oh, there was a nice monument on the west side of the bridge, with a carved portrait of what DeSoto might have looked like. And newspapers reporters and various governmental officials had to pay attention, as in: “The parade will cross the DeSoto Bridge and turn south on Wilson Avenue . . .”

But for the most part, through the 1960s, we all simply called it “the new bridge.” When the city’s two older bridges were replaced with the Veterans Bridge and later the University Bridge, “the new bridge” didn’t work so well. So what had been the new bridge was referred to as the Highway 23 Bridge (or the Division Street Bridge, which was not quite accurate, as Highway 23 doesn’t run along Division Street until some distance west of the river).  I honestly don’t recall ever hearing a non-official or non-reporter refer to the 1959 bridge as the DeSoto Bridge.

The DeSoto Bridge is gone now. After the Interstate Highway 35W Bridge in Minneapolis groaned and fell into the river on an August afternoon in 2007, every bridge of similar design in Minnesota – and likely elsewhere – was inspected. And the DeSoto Bridge was discovered to have a structural anomaly – bowing gusset plates – similar to that thought to have been responsible for the failure of the Minneapolis bridge. It was closed (shortly after the Minneapolis disaster, I think, but I can’t find a date for that) and then demolished in March 2008, and highway officials put up a new bridge in what seems a pretty speedy eighteen months.

That new bridge opened two days ago, and motorists through the region no doubt are all pleased, as the city and the area have become way too populous to manage traffic with two bridges, as we’ve done for two years now. So that’s a relief. But what do we call it? Well, the newest bridge has been dubbed, in an excess of excess, the Granite City Crossing. I’m pretty sure that’s another name that will never find its way into the day-to-day language here in Central Minnesota. I’m guessing that for a long, long time, that bridge will be simply “the new bridge.”

So that’s a little more than a century of bridges in St. Cloud, six bridges from 1892 to 2009. But wait! There’s also a railroad trestle in town, built in 1872. There’s little traffic on the trestle, just trains operated by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and the occasional fools who cross the tall bridge on a dare or in a drunken state.

But it is a bridge, and that makes seven, so here’s today’s Saturday Single:

“Seven Bridges Road” by Steve Young from Seven Bridges Road [1971]

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