Written by Bill Fredell
The liftbridge was completed in 1931 allowing traffic to move between Stillwater and Wisconsin. It has worked well in its eighty-five years of service. One of only a few remaining liftbridges in Minnesota, it has become the symbol of Stillwater and a welcome sight of the St. Croix Valley. The liftbridge is on the National Register of Historical Places (1989) and its cost of $460,174 was split between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Today, it carries 18,000 vehicles per day.
Before the liftbridge was built, a wooden bridge was built by the city of Stillwater in 1875. This first bridge went through changes in structure during its many years of service. Built of wood, it featured a pontoon section that swung out of the way to allow boats and timber to be moved up and down the river.
There were problems that required rebuilding during its time of service. There was a collapse due to a the weight and cadence of a cattle herd, then there was a fire on September 15, 1904 causing very serious structural problems as well as injuries and loss of life.
According to the information on one of the bridge photos in the John Runk Collection:
“View of the burning and collapse of the historic wooden bridge over the St Croix River at Stillwater, Minnesota, September 1904, 3:10 P.M. of that day, the East end of the bridge span was discovered to be on fire. The fire department responded quickly. During the fire fighting, the hose cart ventured out on to the burning span. Suddenly the span collapsed, carrying horses, hose cart, and sightseers into the lake.
Rudolph Boo, George McGrath, and Edward McPheters were killed. James McGann, fire chief, pinioned under a huge timber could be removed only by sawing and chopping away the timber. He escaped with bruises and a badly injured leg. Others injured were Ray French, Herman Wojahn and Joseph DeCurtins.”
“Origin of the fire was unknown, but there was a suspicion that one of the tug boats passing under the span may have emitted sparks eventually set fire to the structure. The bridge tender, John Clarey, made frantic attempts to keep the crowd off of the bridge, but they crowded on to the structure in large numbers. Fortunately, school had not been dismissed for the day, so no children were on the bridge, otherwise the loss of life would have been even greater.”
The liftbridge is to be replaced in the fall of 2017, with a new structure approximately 1.5 miles downstream from the present bridge location. The new bridge is an “extradosed” design and the cost is $580-646 million dollars.
In the future, the liftbridge will carry only pedestrian and bicycle traffic across the St. Croix River. It will remain as a historical monument to Stillwater and visitors and residents will still enjoy the occasional opening and closing of the lift span. The new bridge in the distance will keep transient traffic to a minimum, allowing Stillwater to become a destination, travel and history center for visitors to Minnesota.