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Father Louis Hennepin Bridge was first to span Mississippi

The bridge was built in 1855 to take advantage of the transport possibilities provided by the Mississippi River above St. Anthony Falls.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
View of the Hennepin Bridge from Nicollet Island, c.1868.

The Father Louis Hennepin Bridge was built in 1855 to take advantage of the transport possibilities provided by the Mississippi River above St. Anthony Falls. It was the first bridge built to span the Mississippi river, and made crossing its length above the Falls much easier. The rushing rapids helped to created industry on the river and spurred a population boom that made Minneapolis the most populated city in Minnesota.

In the 1850s, the rock ledge above the Falls of St. Anthony was the only place where the Mississippi could be crossed in the area. In the winter months a thick layer of ice made travel easy. The high waters of spring and summer, however, made passage over the river slow and unsafe. In 1847 businessman Franklin Steele and his friend John Stevens established a rope ferry from Nicollet Island to the western side of the river to help travelers cross.

While the ferry helped initially, an increase in traffic necessitated new construction. In 1851 a bridge was built from St. Anthony to Nicollet Island to make the trek to the island easier for travelers. A short time later Steele and local business leaders took steps to build a bridge that would reach both sides of the river.

On March 4, 1852, Steele and his associates were granted a charter by the Territorial Legislature to build a bridge. The group formed the Mississippi Bridge Company and soon after began planning for a new bridge along the same path as the rope ferry. They hired Engineer Thomas W. Griffith to head the construction project. Griffith and his team began work on a suspension-style bridge on May 5, 1854. The cost of the completed bridge was $36,000.

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The bridge opened to the public on January 23, 1855. A grand celebration marked the occasion. At one o’clock a large parade formed in front of the St. Charles Hotel in Saint Anthony, complete with sleighs filled with people, banners, and a marching band. Their route took them over a smaller bridge to Nicollet Island, where they were welcomed by a cannon blast as they stepped onto the Suspension Bridge. After crossing the river, the parade moved through the business district of the municipality of Minneapolis and returned to St. Anthony. A celebratory dinner followed.

Since Steele and the Mississippi Bridge Company owned the bridge, crossing it required the payment of a toll. Pedestrians paid three cents (five cents for a round trip); horses and mules cost fifteen cents each; single-horse carriages cost twenty-five cents; cows and oxen cost ten cents each; and pigs and sheep cost two cents each. Due to safety concerns, all who crossed were required to do so at no faster than a walking pace.

The bridge was almost immediately plagued with safety issues. On March 25, 1855, a tornado tore through the area, nearly destroying the bridge. Although it was rebuilt and reopened on July 4, safety and capacity concerns persisted throughout its lifetime that eventually led to its being replaced.

The rapid growth of St. Anthony and Minneapolis meant that a new bridge would soon be needed. When the work began in 1854 there were roughly 450 inhabitants in Minneapolis and nearly a thousand in St. Anthony. By 1860 the cities’ populations had grown to 2500 and 3200, respectively.

In 1869 the charter the Mississippi Bridge Company held on the bridge expired and Hennepin County paid the company $37,500 to assume ownership. The toll requirement continued until the bonds sold to buy the bridge were paid off in 1872. In February St. Anthony officials agreed to merge their city with Minneapolis. The county-owned bridge was turned over to the new city. Now a single entity, its connection over the river became even more important. Calls to build a new bridge to handle increased traffic multiplied almost immediately.

A second suspension bridge was built directly to the north of the first one. Thomas Griffith was once again hired to serve as engineer. On February 22, 1877, the second Hennepin suspension bridge opened, making its predecessor unnecessary. The first bridge built to give travelers the ability to cross the Mississippi River was destroyed soon after.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.