Most people putzing around the bluffs of downtown St. Paul likely don’t see it there, tucked at an angle underneath the Robert Street bridge: a 109-year-old railroad lift bridge that’s squished against the river levee. It’s been rising and falling in the corner of people’s eyes for over a century.
This year, the lift bridge is likely nearing its end. Owned by the Union Pacific, the railroad has submitted an application to demolish it and replace it with a new, upgraded design. If and when that happens, it’ll mark the end for a quirky bit of St. Paul riverfront history.
An uplifting landmark
It’s no exaggeration to say that St. Paul’s history is largely synonymous with railroads. In theory, the only downtown railroad bridge should have a distinctive presence in the city’s landscape, something like the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis.
At least some people feel that way.
“The bridge itself is really significant,” said Nathan Houlth, a bridge preservation consultant who runs a very thorough website on the subject. “It’s a rare bridge in the context of Minnesota, and the setting is really unique.”
Houlth’s webpage evaluates most of the bridges in the country, including the Twin Cities’ metro, according to local and national historic significance. Per his rankings, the St. Paul bridge has national significance equal to the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis. (Houlth argues that the most significant bridges in Ramsey County are the 7th Street Viaduct leading to Swede Hollow and the Robert Street bridge, right next to the lift bridge.)
According to Union Pacific’s lengthy study on the bridge, the first bridge in this spot, a Pratt truss swing bridge, was built in 1885. It was part of the ambitious but undercapitalized railroad venture named the Chicago Great Western Railway, to gain access to the downtown Union Depot. The bridge that’s there today was a replacement for the first one, and the first to use the innovative lift design.
“It’s among the oldest of the surviving early Wadell lift bridges in the county,” explained Houlth. “There are few others from around the same era, but they’re not vertical.”
As Houlth explains, the bridge’s designer, John Alexander Lowe Waddell, was a pioneering engineer who designed the first dedicated lift bridges. The one in St. Paul is one of his rare early works that remains in use. Unlike the more famous Duluth lift bridge, its original design was intended to go up and down.
Fun fact: the entire bridge was raised 17 feet in 1925, along with all the railroad tracks leading into the Union Depot, to safeguard the railroad network against river flooding. If you look closely at the abutments you can see how low the bridge used to be when it was first built.
The oddest part of the bridge history is that the Chicago Great Western owned a bridge at all; they were one of the main services running between St. Paul, Minneapolis, Chicago, Omaha, and Kansas City. For most of their trip, they leased rights on other company’s tracks and were commonly called the “Maple Leaf route,” because their route map allegedly resembled the three branches of a maple leaf.
All that’s in the past, though. Like all U.S. railroads, the Chicago Great Western consolidated and merged multiple times throughout the 20th century, especially as passenger service disappeared thanks to airline and freeway subsidies. Eventually, they became part of today’s Union Pacific, one of the country’s largest operators.
Thanks to its gradual obsolescence, the Waddell lift bridge’s days are numbered. The Union Pacific application calls for a replacement that would be a more common drawbridge-style design. But first, the company has to go through a lengthy government approval process.
“Along the Mississippi River, there are a number of bridges in St. Paul, as far as La Crosse and all the way to St. Louis,” explained Erik Washburn, the Bridge Administrator for Western Rivers at the U.S. Coast Guard, when I asked him about his jurisdiction. As Bridge Administrator, Washburn’s job is to oversee the hundreds of bridges over public waterways.
“If somebody wants to replace rails or steel, we don’t go through this process but if they want to remove a bridge or replace it, then ‘yes,’” Washburn explained.
The process he’s describing is something referred to as Section 106, referring to a part of the National Historic Preservation Act pertaining to bridges. Because of Section 106, the list of agencies that have to sign off on changes makes for an excellent public policy trivia question: the Army Corps, National Park Service (NPS), State Historic Preservation Office, pertinent Native American tribes, the state Department of Transportation and probably other agencies. Over the next year or so, that process is going to begin playing out.
“We will follow through with NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] working with the Corps, the NPS, and others, to make sure everyone’s involved and making comments,” said Washburn.
In theory, an historic bridge of some significance might be preserved and rehabbed. But in this case, that’s not something that Houlth is very optimistic about.
“I’m a preservationist and I’d like to see the bridge preserved, [but] railroad bridges are really tough,” Houlth admitted, referring to the inarguable physics of today’s heavier trains. “It’s hard to retrofit; essentially the railroad already knows what they want to do, and are usually not very open to suggestions.
Houlth’s likely best case scenario is that the railroad is required to do some mitigation, salvage, or commemoration signage as part of the replacement process.
Personally, I’ll be sad to see the lift bridge go. It occupies an important spot in the city, a place where the railroad, the automobile, and the river come together chaotically to succinctly reflect St. Paul’s transportation origins. I’ll miss the odd, transparent mechanics of the lifting mechanism, the way the little hut sits on top of the steel lattice, and the kinetic energy of the steel suspension. And it’s always exciting when, about twelve times a day, the bridge goes up and down to make way for trains or barges.
I’m guessing the new bridge will appear far more streamlined and modern. We should appreciate our anachronisms while we can.
“This process can take six months, or it can take a year; it depends on the type of bridge,” explained the coast Guard’s Washburn, who has overseen a great many bridge replacements in his time. “The impact of a bridge varies. Sometimes a bridge is in the middle of nowhere, or sometimes it’s a special bridge last of its kind in the U.S. that takes longer. So, it’s really a case by case basis.”