Over the years, at least three major bridges in the Twin Cities have suffered catastrophic collapses. The best known of these disasters, of course, is the 2007 collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis that claimed 13 lives and injured 145 people.
Another big collapse occurred in 1904, when the five uppermost spans of the original Smith Avenue High Bridge in St. Paul came crashing down after being struck by a tornado. Luckily, no one was injured in that incident.
An even earlier collapse, now little remembered, also occurred in St. Paul, in 1898, destroying part of the 6th Street bridge, a structure that is all but forgotten today, even though it was once among the city’s most impressive spans.
Built in 1891, the bridge was 1,156 feet long and consisted of a series of latticework steel and iron trusses. It crossed numerous railroad tracks and the Trout Brook-Phalen Creek valley to connect the Lowertown area just east of downtown to the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood.
Because the construction of Interstate 94 in the 1960s reshaped much of the area immediately east of downtown St. Paul, it’s hard to imagine today exactly where the bridge stood. The collapse, however, occurred just south of the two stone arches beneath E. 7th Street, which still serve as entrances to Swede Hollow.
Looking at the old photographs of the bridge, I’ve often wondered why it was built in the first place. It was just a block from another series of bridges, on E. 7th, that also linked Lowertown to Dayton’s Bluff.
The E. 7th crossing had been built at great expense in the 1880s and provided what is still the main route between downtown St. Paul and the city’s East Side.
For whatever reason, the city decided in the early 1890s to built a second crossing at 6th Street. The new bridge, designed primarily for wagons and pedestrians, was only 60 feet wide (including sidewalks) and did not carry streetcars, which used E. 7th.
Four railroad lines joined with the city in constructing the bridge, which cost $150,000 and was a very straightforward design, its long trusses supported by steel piers (or “bents” as they were commonly called) rising from heavy stone foundations.
The collapse occurred on Dec. 7, 1898, at 10:30 a.m. as a freight train operated by the St. Paul and Duluth Railroad (also known as the “Skally” Line) passed under the bridge. A broken switch pin caused several cars to derail and one of them plowed sideways into a pier close to the downtown side of the bridge. The force of the impact buckled the pier and set off a chain reaction that caused a 200-foot section of the bridge to plunge to the tracks below.
According to the St. Paul Daily Globe, the collapse was not instant. Instead, “the bridge rocked to and fro for a moment before the final plunge,” even as “the grinding of girders and snapping of bolts could be heard blocks away.”
Unfortunately, one pedestrian was caught in the mayhem. His name was Jacob Cohen, and he went down with the bridge, landing in a tangle of wreckage 40 feet below. Amazingly, he survived, although with serious injuries, including a severe concussion and a broken arm.
“Twisted and gnarled all around him were the heavy steel spans and girders,” the Globe reported, “but while he was unconscious, none of the heavier parts of the wreckage rested on his body.”
Several other pedestrians and at least three men driving horse-drawn wagons were on other parts of the bridge but they all managed to escape without injury. So, too, did the crew of the freight train.
As fate would have it, one of St. Paul’s best known physicians and surgeons, Dr. Justus Ohage, was also on the bridge at the time.
Ohage, who would soon go on to become the city’s commissioner of public health, had just driven his buggy onto the east end of the bridge when it collapsed, but he executed a quick U-turn to make his way to safety. He tended to Cohen and saw it to it that the injured man was transported to St. Paul’s City Hospital, where his survival was judged nothing short of “miraculous.”
It should come as no surprise, given the multiple owners of the bridge, that there was an immediate dispute over who should pay for repairs, even though the St. Paul and Duluth Railroad (a small line bought by the Northern Pacific in 1900) was clearly to blame for the disaster. After much lawyering, the matter of liability was resolved and the bridge was rebuilt in 1899.
The bridge went on to survive another 68 years, although it required numerous fixes as time went on. By the 1950s, it was no longer strong enough to support trucks, and only automobiles and pedestrians were permitted to use it.
The bridge was finally demolished in 1960, when construction of I-94 completely reshaped the area around it. A pair of bridges that serve as freeway ramps now link 6th Street in Dayton’s Bluff to I-94, but no traces remain of the old iron-and-steel structure that was once the scene of high drama and an astonishing escape from death.
Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author of 14 nonfiction books and eight mystery novels. He can be reached at larrymillett.com.