For two and a half years, a meticulous restoration of the historic Stillwater Lift Bridge kept people off the 1,053-foot-long span over the St. Croix River. That should soon change.
Some of the last pieces needed to restore the bridge arrived last week, and state transportation officials say they hope to reopen it, to pedestrians and cyclists, later this month. For Stillwater Mayor Ted Kozlowski, it can’t come soon enough.
“We’re ecstatic,” said Kozlowski. “This is a Christmas present that we’ve been staring at under the tree for the last two years that we haven’t been able to open.”
The reopening amounts to quite the turnaround of fortunes for the 1931 lift bridge, which for many years was targeted to be torn down upon the completion of a larger bridge to the south. Those plans were eventually abandoned in the face of public opposition, and a plan was made to restore the bridge, close it to vehicle traffic, and incorporate it into a 5-mile walking path.
Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman Kent Barnard said some of the final pieces needed for the restoration — new drums and gears — arrived last week from the specialty manufacturer in Miami that’s been working from the original blueprints to rebuild pieces of the bridge’s lifting mechanism.
The drums were initially sent to Miami a year ago to be repaired and fitted with new ring and pinion gears, but after workers found a “major” crack on one of the drums, MnDOT ordered two new drums, according to a MnDOT statement.
“The details they put into this,” Kozlowski said, “it’s almost easier to find parts for a Model T Ford from the 1930s.”
Installation of the equipment will require canceling the bridge’s lift schedule on weekdays for the next three weeks. The lifting span will be raised at the end of each workweek to let boat traffic pass under the bridge throughout the weekend, the statement added.
Barnard said there’s no specific opening date, owing in part to the complexity of the bridge work.
“Since this bridge is nearly 90 years old and we still could encounter issues, the best I can say with certainty is that we are tentatively hoping to be done with the majority of the rehab work before the end of May,” he said. The state plans to open the bridge at that time, even if minor work remains, he added.
A grand opening celebration initially planned for this weekend was rescheduled to Aug. 28 because of the pandemic. City Council Member Mike Polehna said the late summer plans could still change.
The bridge’s restoration was included in the $646 million two-state St. Croix Crossing project that built a new bridge 1.5 miles to the south. Once the decision was made to save the lift bridge, MnDOT made repairs to prolong the bridge’s life, including a $5 million rehabilitation in 2005 and a $3.3 million upgrade in 2012.
The final renovation plans didn’t merely call for shoring up the bridge, but also for restoring it to its original condition right down to the original style of lampposts along the railings and the original “federal green” paint color.
The restoration sparked some controversy. Kozlowski said some local observers blanched when they saw the MnDOT restoration plans, thinking the gray bridge had never been green. Kozlowski said someone came across an invoice for the bridge’s first paint job and it was, in fact, green.
Taking on some of the most challenging pieces of the restoration was a Miami manufacturing company that specializes in making bridge parts. Using the original 1931 blueprints, workers at J.C. Machine Works Corp. built or rehabilitated some of the key pieces of the bridge’s lifting mechanism — the trunnions, sheaves, drums and gears that make it possible to raise and lower one of the bridge’s spans.
Pedro “Pete” Amador, the company’s president, said he’s never been to Stillwater, but “I would love to visit the bridge!”