What the 35W bridge memorial doesn't say

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 21, 2011 - 9:37 AM

A nearby monument to an 1878 milling disaster provides an example of how to explain a tragedy in terms that future generations can grasp.

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Justina Hausmann, whose father, Peter, died in the 35W bridge collapse, stood with others with ties to the bridge as renderings of the design for a memorial were presented by architect Tom Oslund.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Most anyone who has spent much time near the Stone Arch Bridge has passed by the large stone marker that's mounted over a portal into the ruins of the Washburn Crosby "A" Mill.

The inscription carved there is now so ancient as to be nearly illegible. But it's a simple, direct, powerful statement about the terrible accident that occurred there 132 years ago:

"This mill was erected in the year 1879, on the site of Washburn Mill "A," which was totally destroyed on the second day of May, 1878, by fire and a terrific explosion occasioned by the rapid combustion of flour dust. Not one stone was left upon another, and every person engaged in the mill instantly lost his life."

The marker ends with the names of the 14 millers who died in the blast.

That's just one more than the number of people who died in the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, an event commemorated by a recently unveiled memorial a few hundred yards downstream. But consider that that was 14 people in a city then numbering under 47,000, and four more died in the resulting fire. The economic impact of the mill explosion was huge as well, obliterating six mills, or one-third of the city's leading industry. Like the bridge, the mill was rebuilt quickly.

These reflections were prompted by repeated visits to the site of the bridge memorial, which opened early last month. The new memorial draws a steady stream of respectful visitors. They can read inscriptions written about the 13 victims by their families and watch a scrim of water cascade over the names of the survivors, and they can venture to a small river overlook behind the memorial. But is something missing?

One historian we consulted, riverfront specialist Penny Petersen, said the memorial "seems to be an anodyne message created by a committee, with no reference to the circumstances that led to the loss of life. I suspect that in the future, riverfront visitors will wonder exactly what is being commemorated here."

The Washburn inscription is powerful because it encapsulates in a few words what happened on that awful day. But the bridge memorial contains no such overarching description of what happened. People who visit in 50 years, or those who move here from other places, might be left to wonder what the site is memorializing.

There is an inscription on one of the bridge memorial's stone surfaces, which although exceedingly hard to read, states:

"This garden is dedicated to those who were lost, those who survived and those who responded with heroism and humanity -- to all whose lives were forever changed at 6:05 p.m. on Aug. 1, 2007."

Nowhere is there a clear description of what happened at that date and time. A visitor might infer that 13 people died, but only if one reads the individual vignettes closely. There's no hint of how or why the bridge fell, how public safety personnel responded, how the nation's attention was drawn to the disaster, how Congress granted rebuilding money, or how a river crossing was restored in little more than a year.

The memorial was shaped in large part by representatives from the families of those who died and those who survived the collapse. That happened in meetings convened by the mayor's office, in keeping with Mayor R.T. Rybak's promise to the families.

Their input drove certain key decisions. The overlook, for example, is notable because although it looks over the river, there's no view of the bridge itself. An earlier proposal to cantilever the overlook further over the bluff to provide a view of the bridge was nixed by those family members and survivors who participated.

"The idea of the cantilever felt bad to them. To a person, the room gasped," said Rybak spokesman John Stiles. Fair enough, but without a bridge view, one might then ask: Why build an overlook at all?

Although the memorial has many parts, even for the careful reader they may never add up to a concise, powerful statement of what happened, comparable to the Washburn mill inscription's declaration that "not one stone was left upon another."

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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