Controversy has surrounded the construction of every bridge over the Saint Croix River between Stillwater, Minnesota, and Houlton, Wisconsin. When a new bridge was proposed in the 1960s, though, no one anticipated that decades would pass before the ribbon-cutting for the new Saint Croix River Bridge in 2017. The historic Stillwater lift bridge was in the center of the fray.
Preservationists concluded that construction of the new bridge had an adverse effect on historic resources. As one of the measures to mitigate this impact, the Minnesota Department of Transportation was required to publish a history of the lift bridge. MnDOT hired us to write the book. It tells the tale of the historic lift bridge, the crossings that preceded it, and the efforts to save it and build a new bridge.
The story spanned three centuries. In the last half of the nineteenth century, the lumber industry turned Stillwater into a bustling community. The crossing was served by a ferry in 1849 and a pontoon bridge by 1876. The cost of maintaining the bridge soon became a burden for the community, which lobbied to have Minnesota and Wisconsin take over that responsibility. In addition, by the early twentieth century, the bridge was becoming obsolete. This led the state highway departments to build a new steel bridge in 1931 with a vertical-lift span to accommodate river traffic. The eye-catching structure was quickly embraced as a local icon.
In the decades after World War II, though, the bridge became a bottleneck as both vehicular traffic and recreational river use increased. Initial proposals to modify the structure led to plans to completely replace it. This was complicated by the Saint Croix’s designation by Congress as a Wild and Scenic River and by the listing of the bridge in the National Register. Although a new crossing was eventually built, the process had stops and starts, lawsuits and mediation, studies and more studies. The historic lift bridge, once threatened with demolition, has been saved and converted for pedestrian and bicycle use, part of a loop trail that goes over the new bridge.