Walking down Smith Street from West Seventh toward the High Bridge, you pass a lot of the sorts of houses that remind you of one of the primary reasons people enjoy living in St. Paul – it’s old, and it wears its age well. I pass squat, beautiful house after squat, beautiful house made of stone and brick, all of them 50 years older than anything west of the river. Some of them look like they were plucked out of rolling New Hampshire or Pennsylvania farmlands and set down in this dense, urban neighborhood. I’m instantly jealous, but instead of lingering to investigate the architectural wonders of Uppertown, I continue following the signs that point me to the High Bridge.
The High Bridge looms over both the physical landscape and the popular imagination and cultural memory of this part of the city unlike anything else. The original was surely one of the architectural marvels of its time and place, built in 1889 with nothing but iron, connecting two immigrant-heavy communities separated by the river. This iteration of the bridge snapped in 1904 during a windstorm (maybe a tornado, depending on whom you ask), and was rebuilt soon after using steel. This bridge spanned the river for most of the century, hanging on until 1984, when it was declared structurally unsound and closed.
In 1987, the bridge re-opened, built once again with steel, and sturdy and redundant enough to stand for at least another hundred years. Hearing stories from Twin Cities natives about crossing not only the old High Bridge, but really any of the old Mississippi River bridges — the Marshall Avenue Bridge, for example — it is always shocking to me how old those bridges were and how rickety they sounded. I can’t imagine crossing a 75-year-old city bridge with visible swaying, but apparently that was the case, not that long ago.
The High Bridge now is in no danger of swaying or imparting anything other than the sensation of sure-footedness as you cross it. Apparently, the powers-that-be were pretty keen on building the most economical, utilitarian bridge possible in 1987, maybe even without sidewalks, but the adjacent neighborhoods around fought for the new design to contain some amenities, including pedestrian walkways. On both sides of the bridge, there are small, well-tended observation areas, with one of those Tower Optical coin-operated binoculars on the St. Paul side. What could have been a brutal, expansive slab of concrete is a neighborhood landmark and a nice place to visit. The sentimentalists beat out the pragmatists, which is as it should be. What’s a public-works project without a helping of sentimentality? Just another slop bucket of concrete and steel, that’s what.
Walking over the half-mile of the bridge from West Seventh to the west side of St. Paul (not West St. Paul, which is further south) takes about 10 minutes, and provides what I can really only describe as a god’s-eye view of the city. One-hundred and sixty feet in the air, it’s as close to you can get to an aerial view of the city without being in a low-flying aircraft. Despite the admirable work of the neighborhood associations, crossing the bridge is still not necessarily a great experience for pedestrians — it’s a space that’s meant for cars, and cars dominate it. But as great as the view is from an automobile, it’s even better on foot.
The details on the bridge are not bad up-close, and apparently the railings are made from iron from the earlier bridge. There is something kind of exhilarating and uplifting about being so high up in the air; the few people I encountered on the walk over were especially chatty. I got into an animated conversation with a guy about long sleeves versus T-shirts, prompted by not much of anything. Even the spandex-clad urban runners, who usually blow by me with superhuman disdain, seemed friendlier and shouted “hello.” Downtown rises up to your northeast, with the Cathedral seated at the apex. I could clearly see, from the middle of the bridge, the site of nearly every St. Paul-based Stroll I’ve written — there’s the University Club, there’s the State Capitol, there’s the Post Office, there are the stairways up the James J. Hill House.
It’s easy to see why west siders were so excited to have the bridge open in the late 19th century – to have the full expanse of the city, from the slums along the flats down by the river all the way up to the wealthiest and most exclusive enclaves of Summit and Crocus Hills stretched out before you in one impressive sweeping landscape must have imparted a real sense of ownership and access.
In 2008, Paul Demko wrote an excellent cover feature for City Pages about the High Bridge’s other relative claim to notoriety, as a longstanding destination for suicides. Even from its earliest days, the bridge has been as associated locally with them as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is in that part of the world. Demko even notes that “the phrase ‘taking the High Bridge as a way out’ has long served as a euphemism for suicide among area residents.” The distance, quietness, and sense of height experienced when walking that half-mile stretch can easily translate into loneliness and isolation. Friendly runners and shirt-sleeve conversationalists aside, it’s not a place where you see many people. You’re alone up there – just you and the city.
I assumed, walking onto the bridge, there might be stairs to connect me to the base of the bridge and the recreational areas below. But the sides of the bluffs must be too steep, or traverse too many railroad tracks, because there are no such connections in the immediate area. Being cut off from the areas below compounds the sensation of being airborne. You walk over a half-dozen little model railroad vignettes of life along the river: boxcars sitting on tracks waiting to be filled, densely wooded areas with empty bottles and food wrappers strewn about, a dog park with dozens of tiny little people and their dogs running around, an occasional scull or barge passing below you on the river, the bumper-to-bumper rush-hour automobile traffic on Shepherd Road, boat docks getting scrubbed down, a couple arguing beside some sort of granite monument park you can’t make out the significance of from above, an assemblage of houseboats along the river, their residents living inside of them nearly year-round. You see all of these things, and there’s a sense that you’re above them all, hanging in the air, a silent observer on top of the world. Or at least the part of the world with St. Paul in it.
A few corrections regarding the west side of St. Paul and West St. Paul have been made by a chastised and embarrassed Andy Sturdevant, who ought to know better by now.