Anderson: Retro look planned for new Cooke Swinging Bridge

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 13, 2013 - 11:38 PM

The historic Swinging Bridge near Duluth was swept away by floodwaters last summer but should be rebuilt in time for visitors drawn by the fall colors.

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The Swinging Bridge that until about a year ago connected both sides of the St. Louis River within Jay Cooke State Park is being rebuilt — a summerlong project that is expected to again be an important attraction for park visitors.

Photo: Star Tribune, Dennis Anderson

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– About 1 in the morning of Wednesday, June 20, 2012, the assistant manager at this popular camping and picnicking destination just south of Duluth decided to evacuate the 30 families and groups staying at the park in tents and RVs.

Already, Interstate 35 tunnels in downtown Duluth were filling with floodwater, and streets in Grand Rapids, Minn., were reported to be awash in 6 inches of rain.

Alerting the state’s Arrowhead region that the storm might grow even worse, the National Weather Service declared that a “life-threatening flash flood event appears to be developing across a large part of northern Minnesota.”

Still the rains came.

“I was on duty that night, and a deputy sheriff and I decided it was time to evacuate,’’ said Mark Luschen, assistant manager at Jay Cooke State Park.

Luschen wasn’t worried the campground itself would flood because it, like the park’s buildings, was far enough removed from the floodplain of the now-raging St. Louis River.

“We worried instead that the road getting out of the park might wash out,’’ Luschen said. “We waited until daylight, about 5:30, and awoke the campers and told them we had to leave.’’

Some RVs and other gear were left behind because their weight, Luschen worried, might stress the fast-deteriorating road out of the park.

Luschen was correct to be concerned.

Gates at the Thomson Dam upstream of the park were already wide open, allowing as much water as possible to rush through. But the dam was built more than a century ago without emergency spillways. So the St. Louis, whose torrents would peak at about 55,000 cubic feet per second, was rushing over the levee on the dam and around its sides.

Soon Hwy. 210 in Thomson would wash out, and the torrents would turn their sights on one of Minnesota’s most iconic landmarks, the Swinging Bridge at Jay Cooke.

The suspension bridge, originally built in 1924 by the U.S. Forest Service, has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors to the park over the years, while also providing foot access to a vast, 25-mile web of hiking and cross-country ski trails on the south side of the St. Louis River.

As initially constructed, log cribs supported a “swinging’’ walkway of wood planks that hung 18 feet above the river. At its entrance, a sign read, “Not more than five persons should cross bridge at one time. Jumping, swinging, running or other unnecessary movement on the bridge is dangerous.’’

A decade later, a much stronger suspension bridge replaced the original structure. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and completed in 1935, the new bridge featured stone pillars on either side of the river, replacing the log cribs.

In 1941, another CCC crew raised the bridge deck 4 feet.

Their work wouldn’t last.

In May 1950, during what is now the second-worst flood ever recorded in the region, spring snowmelt sent raging floodwater down the St. Louis. Measured at 42,000 cubic feet per second, the deluge wiped out the Swinging Bridge while leaving largely intact its stone support pillars.

A reconstructed Swinging Bridge would not open until 1953.

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