The old bridge section in Inver Grove Heights is open for its second summer on the Mississippi River.
On a Saturday night in June, Kathy Behrens and Jeff Strogen of Inver Grove Heights took his parents for an after-dinner stroll on the Rock Island Swing Bridge pier, which juts 670 feet out into the Mississippi. Ginny Strogen, visiting from the Lake of the Ozarks, snapped dozens of photos of the view -- the islands, boats in the marina, the wide expanse of the Mississippi -- while her husband, Jim, admired the rivets in the 118-year-old bridge.
"There are always people out here," Behrens said. "It's just a cool thing. They didn't just knock the thing down. It's a cool story."
The pier is a restored section of a rare double-decker bridge built in 1894 that used to span the river. Autos traveled on the bottom lane while trains rushed overhead, and it swung open in the middle so boats could pass. The bridge closed to road traffic in 1999, but Dakota County residents rallied to restore the western section, and it opened to the public last year. A recently paved stretch of 66th Street connects the pier to Concord Boulevard and joins the pier to the developing Mississippi River Regional Trail.
John and Julie Henry of Minnetonka, who dock their boat at a nearby marina, often bring out-of-town visitors to the pier. "It gives us a place to show our guests besides the bar," he said. "It's also cooler down there because of the water. I think it was a very smart thing they did. They took advantage of what they had."
"They really did a great job," he said, motioning to wildflowers starting to dot the hillside along the pedestrian path to the pier. "This is really going to be something when the greenery comes in."
Doug Shidell of Minneapolis, creator of "Twin Cities Bike Map," remembers biking across the bridge in the '80s after paying a toll. Though he said it was "pretty potholed" and dark from the trains overhead, there were few crossings on that stretch of river until the Interstate 494 passing was developed. "We really missed that bridge," he said.
"I think it's cool," he said of the new pier. "It's a different perspective from being on the shore and looking out."
Steve Sullivan, director of parks and open space for Dakota County, said the section of Mississippi River Regional Trail that runs from Kaposia Landing Park in South St. Paul to the pier provides great biking. "It's five miles there and back," he said. "There's really beautiful views of the river, and it's a chance to experience the working river. There is a train terminal on one side, and then on the river side, you're able to watch barge traffic and recreational boaters. You can see the Mississippi River as a natural resource and as a working resource."
Inver Grove Heights Parks and Recreation Director Eric Carlson said he estimates that since the pier's opening, a few hundred people have visited weekly. "Most people," he said, "are very glad that we did the project and proud that we saved the bridge."
"It's part of history that you can't replace anymore," said Jim Huffman, 73, an Inver Grove Heights Parks and Recreation Commission member who fought to preserve the bridge. "I think it was worthwhile saving and fighting for. The city of Inver Grove Heights is the biggest underdog ever."
The pier is part of the overall development of the proposed 80-acre Heritage Village Park. Sullivan said the pier's planned parking lot and trailhead facilities stalled this year because of a lack of anticipated of state funding. The board, he said, will consider alternative funding options for that project later this month.
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.