Editor's note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Aug. 11, 2007.
WORTHINGTON — For an important reason we all know, our papers have been filled with news and reports on bridges for more than a week.
The papers I read said Minnesota has 13,658 bridges that are more than 20 feet in length. In 2000, this column noted there are 350 road bridges in Nobles County alone.
Of Minnesota’s 13,658 bridges, 1,798 are found to be “structurally deficient” or obsolete. The cost of replacing only the I-35W bridge at Minneapolis will be (about) $250 million. We will never have safe bridges. By the time we get 1,798 Minnesota bridges restored/replaced, there will be another long line of bridges needing restoration or replacement.
Everybody “does studies” these days. I did a study. I talked with three people about the bridge at Swift’s at Worthington. To begin with, each of three said, one way or another, “There is no bridge at Swift’s.”
In truth, the I-90 bridge near the Swift plant at Worthington is the biggest bridge ever built in Minnesota’s southwest corner. It has six sections. It spans four lanes of Minnesota 60 plus the Union Pacific railroad tracks.
I was coming from Blue Line. I looked up at the Swift bridge as I passed underneath. I decided — if I could have a choice — I would rather be driving across the bridge than be under it when it collapsed. The steel beams on the bottom of each section would flatten a car like a tin can.
There are some wondrous bridges through our region. In fact, our region invented the modern bridge.
But really not false either.
Go to Rock Rapids, Iowa, to Emma Sater Park just off Iowa 9. There you will find the first reinforced concrete bridge in all of America, the first bridge with steel beams encased in concrete. It spans 30 feet, and it was made from concrete imported from Germany by its designer, the Austrian master Joseph Milan. The bridge was/is preserved by the Kiwanis Club of Rock Rapids and was moved to Sater Park in 1964 from its original site in rural Lyon County.
One of the most beautiful area bridges is the Split Rock Bridge in Pipestone County near Ihlen. Split Rock is a stone arch bridge made for snapshots. Beautiful. Work on the bridge began 80 years ago this year as a New Deal (WPA) project to put men to work. It now is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Not as scenic but more significant are 12 bridges in Rock County and possibly two in Nobles County that were built by Perley N. Gillham of Luverne between 1908 and 1913. These 12/14 bridges are reinforced concrete arch bridges. The one counted most precious because it is the longest is Bridge L-2162, south of Jasper on Rock County 51 in Rose Dell Township. L-2162 is the longest bridge of its kind built in Minnesota before 1910.
You see what I mean — the local area was practically inventing the modern bridge.
Perley Gillham, the man who built those remarkable bridges, is (ought to be) a significant figure in American history, but little has been learned about him. He came to Luverne in 1875 as a plasterer to be with his brother, who was a stage coach driver. The abiding mystery is how Perley learned to design and build reinforced-concrete arch bridges before almost anyone else in the world.
Rock County is a “bridge county.” At Schoneman Park east of U.S. 75 at Luverne there also is a steel, singlespan bridge (No. 1482) that once moved traffic above the Rock River. No. 1482 is known as a “king-post bridge.” That classic design gets bridge builders all excited.
Lately I was at the park at Leota. I certainly don’t know bridges, but Leota has preserved another steel bridge — still in use — that is of a kind many of us used to see on country roads.
The last time I wrote about bridges I told of the reinforced concrete bridge north of Bigelow built in 1938. There was a handsome, gray metal plaque with an eagle on that bridge, left as a testament by the WPA.
Someone came with a hacksaw and stole that plaque away, probably for sale as a historic souvenir on eBay.