Needed: A new history of the Stillwater Lift Bridge. Willing to pay: $50,000.

Requirement: A happy ending.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is looking for a new historian to write a book about the beloved old bridge after canceling its first contract with the Washington County Historical Society last fall.

The falling-out between MnDOT and the historical society adds a new chapter to the long and contentious history of the St. Croix River crossing. MnDOT spent $30,000 before declaring the manuscript unpublishable, and it’s not clear that anyone will see it now.

The partnership did produce plenty of nasty e-mails, including accusations of censorship, hidden agendas and dreadful writing. The e-mails were acquired and publicized last month by Public Record Media, a St. Paul-based nonprofit.

“We both felt the tone of the book was not what we expected or envisioned for the publication,” Renee Barnes, a MnDOT official, wrote to the historical society in March 2015.

The next month, the society’s Brent Peterson fired back: “The censorship by your office through this publication must stop.”

The colossal new highway bridge now rising over the federally protected river required an act of Congress, which in 2012 broke a decades-long standoff among river preservationists, lift bridge lovers, local politicians, business owners and transportation builders.

As part of the “mitigation” of the project, MnDOT agreed to pay $50,000 for a history book, something it had never done before.

Donald Empson, a local historian who fought to save the lift bridge, said that was his idea. Empson was one of three writers affiliated with the county historical society.

The e-mails reveal tension over how much the book should dwell on the drawn-out and bitter battle over the new bridge. In January 2015, Barnes responded to the society’s inquiry about the cumulative cost of certain studies by saying that figure was “not appropriate” for the book.

“We just collectively feel that this should be a historical monograph about the lift bridge and new bridge and not be bogged down by a ton of bureaucratic information,” she wrote.

The debate reminded me of MnDOT’s public relations stance after the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in 2007. The agency wanted to keep the focus on its shiny new bridge, rather than dwelling on the structurally deficient one that its inspectors, engineers and consultants failed to keep standing.

Then again, the historical society didn’t help its cause when one of its representatives wrote in an e-mail in September 2015: “I suppose we should pretend we are doing this to see if yet another batch of money will come our way.”

That comment was one of the reasons cited in MnDOT’s Sept. 28 letter canceling the contract. The agency also said the society had declined to meet with them, that the Minnesota historic preservation office detected factual errors, and perhaps most devastating: “The quality of the writing is poor.”

Thirty grand presumably didn’t buy very much, because MnDOT has declared the project 10 percent complete in its recent bridge progress report. And they have found enough money to put up the $50,000 for the second try, this time only in e-book form.

That’s small change for a bridge project that’s costing upward of $600 million.

Kristin Calliguri, a MnDOT spokeswoman, said the agency always wanted a collaborative approach to the book, and wasn’t trying to control the message. Then again, asked if MnDOT wants a positive history about the lift bridge, Calliguri said: “I don’t think there’s much negativity around that.”

The Stillwater Lift Bridge will close to cars and become a crossing for pedestrians and bicycles some time after the new bridge opens. That’s expected in the fall of 2017.

MnDOT is making no predictions about when the bridge history will materialize. Should you want to read an unauthorized bridge biography, however, you can have it for 25 bucks. Months before the contract was canceled, Empson dropped out of the project and self-published his own version, with co-author Kathleen Vadnais.

Once MnDOT learned about the book, however, an agency official asked Empson to remove three names of MnDOT employees from the text. It was too late, so Empson agreed to their request to add this language to an “errata sheet.”

“Because the MnDOT representatives did not review and approve any text in my book, nor offered their support of the book, they would like their names removed from this book.”

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.