The last resident of an abandoned Oak Park Heights neighborhood died in 2001 when her home caught fire. Like so many before it, the two-story house soon disappeared from the landscape. Only cracked streets, forgotten fireplugs and unpruned trees remained for years in the “ghost neighborhood” just a quarter mile from the St. Croix River.
Now, in just two months, that neglected place has transformed. Big machines resembling science fiction insects crawl over the barren ground, stripped of its urban forest, and for the first time a view has emerged of how a massive new bridge will align with connecting highways.
A portion of Beach Road, a rutted ribbon of asphalt circumventing the old neighborhood, is gone. Instead, motorists drive on a temporary road through the heart of the most iconic evidence yet of a multi-decade campaign to retire the Stillwater Lift Bridge.
The breathtaking pace of the $690 million bridge project — which by next spring will include highway construction on the Wisconsin side of the river — has transformed Oak Park Heights, population 4,500, into one of the busiest construction zones in Minnesota.
Below the hill from where the “ghost neighborhood” once languished, orange cranes mounted on barges reach to the sky over the St. Croix as 57 workers build footings for a blufftop-to-blufftop bridge. It will stand three times taller than the Interstate 94 bridge at Hudson, Wis.
To the west, bulldozer operators have plowed the makings of an extended frontage road past Phil’s Tara Hideaway restaurant alongside Hwy. 36.
The log structure reputedly was once a boozy out-of-the-way nightclub for gangsters and bootleggers.
Hundreds of construction workers will participate in each phase of the four-year project. In the end, the 1931 Lift Bridge will end its long labor as a vehicle crossing and become part of a pedestrian loop trail.
A webcam of the bridge construction area can be viewed at www.dot.state.mn.us/stcroixcrossing/webcam.html.