Built over the course of twenty-two months in 1882 and 1883, the Stone Arch Bridge across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis is a feat of engineering and a reminder of the importance of rail traffic in the late nineteenth century.
James J. Hill commissioned the Stone Arch Bridge in 1881 to carry freight and passengers to and from Minneapolis on his St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway. Engineer Charles C. Smith designed the bridge with a curve due to the site's physical restrictions, which included pre-existing buildings, St. Anthony Falls, and the fragile stone underlying the area. Achieving the curve as designed required twenty-three arches varying in size from forty to 100 feet wide. The bridge stretched 2,100 feet long and twenty-eight feet wide—enough width for two tracks to run side by side.
No new technology was used to build the bridge, despite its innovative design. It was a masonry construction of stone from local sources, with granite from Sauk Rapids for the pilings, limestone from the riverbank for the fill, magnesium limestone from Mankato and Stone City, Iowa, for the facing, and marble from Bridgeport, Wisconsin, for the trim. All of its stones were placed using ropes, pulleys, horses, and men. Three men and one horse died during the bridge's construction, which was tragic but a low number of fatalities for the time.
Hill took a personal interest in the bridge and spent lavishly to make it more durable than its contemporaries. It was the only structure Hill commissioned to which he attached his name, on a plaque on one of the arches.
The Stone Arch Bridge was called "Hill's Folly" during its construction, but once complete, it became a recognized and admired symbol of Minneapolis. The bridge was commonly used in letterhead and advertising materials, and it was frequently photographed, often in conjunction with the neighboring Industrial Exposition Building and Washburn and Pillsbury mills.
In 1885, with the completion of the city's new Union Depot, also commissioned by Hill, the Stone Arch Bridge was heavily used by passenger trains. At its peak, the bridge supported eighty-two passenger trains a day. Riders had dramatic views of the area as they crossed into and out of the city.
Drainage modifications and some reinforcement occurred between 1907 and 1911. The bridge's width was increased by cutting the top walls back a foot in 1925 to accommodate larger train cars. Two arches and a pier were taken out and replaced by a Warren truss bridge between 1959 and 1963 to allow commercial traffic through the then recently constructed Upper Lock and Dam.
In 1965, following record flooding on the Mississippi, the bridge's seventh pier sank fourteen inches, and the bridge was closed for six months for repairs. The last passenger train went over the bridge in 1978, and the future of the structure was debated. It was transformed into a pedestrian walkway in 1994 and has been part of an ongoing urban renewal project along the riverfront.
The Stone Arch Bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 in recognition of its architectural significance and importance to the community.
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The Stone Arch Bridge is completed in 1883 and acts as a key connecting point, improving transportation to and from Minneapolis.
James J. Hill commissions the Stone Arch Bridge to cross the Mississippi River.
The Stone Arch Bridge is completed after twenty-two months of labor.
The width of the bridge is increased to accommodate larger train cars.
The Stone Arch Bridge is placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The last passenger train goes over the bridge and its future is debated.
The Stone Arch Bridge is transformed into a pedestrian walkway.