A heap of rusty gears that lay exposed in the corner of a construction yard off of Hwy. 52 in Inver Grove Heights may look like just scrap metal to the average passerby. But to Jim Huffman, they might as well be rubies.

"Aren't they beauties?" said Huffman, admiring them on a windy summer day.

The rollers and turn gears used to allow the Rock Island Swing Bridge to swing open for boat traffic. They won't be sandblasted in time for the ribbon-cutting ceremony when the bridge-turned-recreational-pier opens Wednesday. But Huffman says they are a huge piece of the bridge's history.

"These are an important part of the puzzle," he said.

Huffman, 72, is an Inver Grove Heights Parks and Recreation Commission member and one of many bridge supporters throughout the years who fought to preserve the 117-year-old span once slated for demolition.

Willie Krech, 66, also remembers the bridge from when he was young.

"I lived in Inver Grove my whole life, and we drove across it when we were kids ... It was kind of the only bridge between here and Robert Street in St. Paul," Krech said.

Now, he is helping preserve some of the bridge's history. Several years ago, Krech, along with Huffman and others, worked to save the gears and other pieces from being discarded. At least one of the gears had to be pulled from the bottom of the river.

While it is not exactly clear where the pieces will be placed near the new public pier, the plan is to put them within view of visitors as a reminder of its origins, Krech said.

Another component of the bridge that should be completed in about a month is the reconstruction of the entrance archway that used to greet travelers back when it was constructed in 1894.

Frank Rauschnot Jr., owner of Industrial Containers and Dumpbox Fabrication, said he is going to weld the pieces together to go over a walkway leading to the bridge.

Rauschnot, 53, remembers goofing off on the bridge with friends when he was younger. He said it was good that at least some of the original bridge was saved.

"It needs to be there," he said of the archway.

Carried traffic and trains

The old double-decker span has had quite a history. It was one of only a few bridges on the Mississippi that carried trains on its upper deck and vehicles below.

It was built for the South St. Paul Beltline Railroad to connect stockyards in South St. Paul with main rail lines that ran through St. Paul Park.

The bridge was closed to rail use in 1980 and closed to road traffic in 1999.

Set for demolition a few years ago, it was saved by the city for a $2.3 million transformation, which began in April of last year.

Funds came from several sources, including a $1.3 million federal grant, county state aid disaster funds, the Minnesota Historical Society and Dakota County. A local fund drive helped as well.

The project has re-used the Dakota County side of the structure, reconstructing two spans which connect two others still in the river to the shore in Inver Grove Heights.

Flooding from September storms delayed the pier opening, which was originally set for November.

A fire late last year significantly damaged the deck on the remaining two spans of the original bridge, but that has been repaired.

"It's been a long haul," said Inver Grove Heights Mayor George Tourville. The pier will be a great amenity, Tourville said, providing some unique views of the Mississippi, as well as serving as an economic boost for the Concord Boulevard area.

"Hopefully, all of our public investment will encourage private reinvestment in the area," said Parks and Recreation Director Eric Carlson.

When the pier opens, it will be without a parking lot, slated to be completed late this year, and a restroom facility, slated for construction next year, Carlson said.

The 670-foot recreational pier is closely tied to the city's development of the proposed 80-acre Heritage Village Park, which is expected to make use of the Mississippi River Regional Trail which connects St. Paul to Hastings.

The city has a master plan for the park that could include amenities such as a multi-purpose park building and the Old Town Hall, but it could take years to implement it, Carlson said.

Plans for the park's buildings will be discussed throughout the summer and into the early fall.

Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495