We have a stamp (if not bridges) we can be proud of

  • Article by: NICK COLEMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 4, 2008 - 8:42 PM

The bridge at Winona is featured in the design for the Minnesota Statehood Sesquicentennial Stamp.

At least this time, we got a nifty picture of a bridge before it could fall.

It was just last month that the Postal Service honored the 32nd state of the Union by issuing a commemorative stamp for Minnesota's 150th birthday. Unfortunately, the strikingly beautiful stamp turned out to have captured the essence of Minnesota in 2008 a little too accurately.

The stamp features a gorgeous photo of the Mississippi River at Winona with the amber light of sunset glinting off the brooding waters. Giving the composition dramatic tension, and uniting the Minnesota side (the west bank of the river) with Wisconsin is the lovely lacy span of the Hwy. 43 bridge.

Oops. Hit the brakes.

When you put "Minnesota," "Mississippi" and "bridge" in the same sentence, you know you are heading for trouble.

On Tuesday, the Minnesota Department of Transportation closed the picturesque span for inspections after finding holes in the 67-year-old structure.

We should have guessed.

The fairy-tale view of Minnesota, provided by a stamp that was issued May 17, lasted only 17 days. On June 3, the beguiling beauty gave way to ugly reality: The Hwy. 43 bridge will be closed for weeks, may need expensive repairs or need replacing, and is forcing residents to drive 70 to 105 miles out of their way in order to cross the Mississippi safely.

Winona Mayor Jerry Miller told me Winona hopes to start a ferry service to get people across the river.

Fabulous. A hundred and fifty years after statehood and we're still using rafts.

Minnesota Welcomes You. Or would, if we weren't closed for maintenance right now. Come back another year.

Years of neglect

It seems as though Minnesotans can't turn anywhere during our sesquicentennial without banging up against the realities of years of neglect and under-spending on infrastructure, especially highways and bridges. Even Gov. Tim Pawlenty has had no luck avoiding potholes.

Pawlenty went to St. Cloud to give his State of the State address in February -- a speech noticeably light on references to last summer's tragic collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge into the Mississippi River. But if Pawlenty had hoped to get away from troubled bridges, it didn't work: He spoke at the St. Cloud Civic Center. Through the windows, there was a great view of the Hwy. 23 bridge over the Mississippi. Right here in Minnesota, the sesquicentennial state.

That bridge was shut down a month later, and is now scheduled for replacement. Other bridges have been slated for emergency repairs since Pawlenty declared there was nothing that could have been done to prevent the 35W bridge from falling: The Hwy. 61 bridge in Hastings, the Lowry Avenue bridge in Minneapolis, the Blatnik Bridge in Duluth and, now, Winona.

Why, it's as if we have some kind of transportation crisis! All I know is we are a once-proud state where Civil War re-enactors were ordered last month not to fire cannons on Statehood Day so as to keep pieces of a government office building erected in honor of the state's 100th birthday from falling on citizens trying to celebrate the 150th.

Can anyone guess which state department has headquarters in that building? Here's a clue: It's the same department taking bids on rafts in Winona.

A good idea

The idea for a stamp honoring Minnesota on its sesquicentennial came from Reatha Clark King, the retired head of the General Mills Foundation, who is vice chair of the sesquicentennial. King was buying Christmas stamps a couple of years ago when she noticed a display of commemorative stamps and decided Minnesota deserved one for its birthday.

The Postal Service agreed, and the stamp -- featuring a lovely photo by Richard Hamilton Smith -- resulted. I reached King by phone Wednesday (she was in New York) and had the sad duty of breaking the news to her that the bridge on her stamp is closed.

She took it in stride, saying that safety comes first and that the bridge closure won't "dampen my enthusiasm."

"I wanted a stamp that the people of Minnesota could be proud of," King said.

She delivered. Minnesota has a statehood stamp of which we really can be proud. One that really captures us.

Far too well.

Nick Coleman • ncoleman@startribune.com

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