Don Empson’s new book, filled with the history of the nearly half-century clash over a new St. Croix River crossing, might be more aptly titled “Bridge Wars.”
In “Crossing the St. Croix River: A 45-year struggle to build a new Stillwater Bridge and save the historic Lift Bridge,” Empson recounts the political and cultural struggles that embroiled two sitting presidents, at least six U.S. Cabinet members, a dozen Members of Congress from Minnesota and Wisconsin, several governors, two federal judges, the National Park Service, hundreds of engineers and 28 stakeholders.
Even with construction underway on a four-lane megabridge, Empson writes, “the result of the new bridge is still really a mystery” and people continue to debate whether it’s a blessing or a curse.
“This bridge controversy, which was played out on the national stage, is probably the most significant event in the 150-plus-year history of Stillwater,” Empson said.
Empson’s book isn’t one built on ambitions of publishing grandeur. He published only 100 copies, each of which will be numbered, to set forth the tumultuous history of the Stillwater Lift Bridge — once destined for removal — and the fight over the interstate bridge that will dwarf it.
Empson is a longtime Stillwater historian whose works include a book exploring origins of St. Paul street names, published by the University of Minnesota Press. He also led Rivertown Restoration Inc., a group of Stillwater preservations who locked arms to save the Lift Bridge, which opened in 1931.
He said at the time of that fight: “Stillwater is a town filled with antiques, and the greatest antique of all is that Lift Bridge.”
The fate of the old bridge became an issue in the 1990s when it was proposed for removal, or modification, to make way for a new bridge. The U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, a federal law that protects the St. Croix River and 202 other rivers nationwide, prohibited another bridge from being built without removing one.
Only an exemption granted by Congress, and signed into law by President Obama in 2012, permitted construction of a new bridge.
Empson’s book details arguments over locations, tunnels, deficiency ratings, creeping costs and assessing tolls on the new bridge. He takes note of $5 million in repairs completed on the Lift Bridge in 2005-2006, despite the Stillwater mayor’s assertions that it could fall down.
That mayor, Ken Harycki, became one of the leaders of a new coalition of bridge supporters and began publicly berating the old bridge, insinuating that a collapse was imminent. He even took a piece of the Lift Bridge to a congressional hearing to drive home his point.
Engineers for the Minnesota Department of Transportation said Harycki was wrong in his assessment and said the extensive repairs had ensured bridge safety for years to come.
Empson’s book also collected colorful comments by former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who complained of the “nonsense of these lawsuits and activist judges” and referred to the Sierra Club and other river advocates as “radical environmental groups.”
The Sierra Club twice filed suit to stop federal funding of the new bridge. Federal judges twice ruled in favor of bridge opponents, but the pro-bridge coalition fought back with a promotional campaign financed in part with taxpayer funds, Empson wrote.
In his book, Empson describes the coalition as a “shadowy organization that would never release its membership list and bylaws, nor detail its finances to the public.”
State financial disclosures showed that the coalition raised about $386,000 over three years, Empson wrote, and about half went to lobbying fees. The coalition’s appeal for public funds fell into controversy when Harycki, from his mayor’s chair, attempted to steer $80,000 in taxpayer money to the coalition he chaired for unspecified use. The state auditor later ruled that such a transaction was illegal.
Still, Empson wrote, the bridge coalition raised tens of thousands of dollars even after Congress approved the bridge project in March 2012, with Harycki declaring the fight was still on.
Empson, meanwhile, wrote that the biggest victory in the bridge wars was preserving the Lift Bridge, a monument to local history.
He quoted Nancy Goodman of the Washington County Historical Society who wrote in 1999:
“It is sort of the Eiffel Tower of Stillwater. If you can imagine Paris without its tower, you picture Stillwater without its bridge.”