Sending Stone Arch’s Story

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The History of Stone Arch Bridge – A Taste of Covert Climbing Culture – On Heightening your Urban Awareness – The Appreciation of Abandoned Relics – and – 3 Urban MSP Climbs

I almost missed spotting them. Three curious strands of webbing were clandestinely wrapped about the base of three bars of the railing atop Minneapolis’ iconic Stone Arch Bridge. Had I been one of the typical spanners — focused joggers, speedy bikers, and amorous couples with eyes only for their other — I would have easily missed that clue in the dark, revealed only by its neon nature reflecting the dim light of a night in the city. Something, someone, was hanging off that webbing against the bridge. I stepped up to the railing and peered over. My eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness. Climbers.

Ten feet from topping out on his route, the climber glanced up at me, blinding me with the beam of his headlamp. 

Hey.

His ambivalent tone was the likely result of his inability to identify me as a threat. Was I park patrol or a curious passerby? I snapped a picture and waved the white flag.

This is awesome. I’m coming down.

 They were climbing on the slightly tree-obscured south face, belaying from the east bank. I descended the old winding staircase through the trees just north of the bridge. Leaning uncomfortably, the wooden timbers were victims of age and the elements.


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 In the 1880s, not long after the west bank city of St. Anthony merged with Minneapolis on the east bank, the only bridge connecting two halves of this burgeoning Midwestern city was the dilapidated Hennepin Ave. It was in a state of structural integrity not unlike these stairs. The city mayors had control of the bridge and were responsible for the upkeep. Never to the satisfaction of business leaders, who distrusted their use of the renovation funds, they united to build a bridge of their own.

 Railroad entrepreneur James Hill took up the cause for his Great Northern Railway, interested in connecting his line from St. Paul to the Red River market in the northwest, source of wheat for the booming flour mill industry around the falls. Fearful of constructing upstream of the Falls and disturbing the bedrock of the river, his bridge was to be built just below it and he set out to acquire land from the millers on each bank. The duo of Farnham & Lovejoy held out for a higher price. Their mill relied on the power of the Mississippi, which they accessed from the shore I had just reached. 


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Slipping underneath the first arch,  or twenty third, depending on which end you count from, I rounded the graffitied corner of the granite block foundation and encountered these late night rock warriors.They had rigged a top rope, for as far as we knew, were first ascents of a very sloped hold route up the magnesium limestone blocks. Progress relied on the seams between blocks and the occasional pocket from old drilling equipment. Sand was often being brushed off a hold and showered down. They rated it around a 5.10b, but left it open for further discussion.


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James Hill had caved and paid the millers much more than he had hoped, then began construction. Steam engines were installed to power pumps that emptied water from the coffer dams around which pier foundations would be built on the floor of the river, and derrick winches to hoist the stone. Trains from Sauk Rapids freighted granite for the foundations. Marble trimming arrived from Bridgeport, WI and the exterior stone now being climbed journeyed from Mankato and Stone City, Iowa. Six hundred workers were brought on for the job. Men stood up to their waist in the icy currents, plumes of exhaled breath dissipating in the frigid air as the pier foundations grew.



The second climber was blowing into his writhing hands, an attempt to return the warmth that had been lost on the chilling block, exposed in the night breeze. He smiled,

You completely forget about ‘em near the top.

I interviewed them a bit more about the idea for their feat. Local gym climbers, the lot. They climb outside of the city on the weekends but rarely have the opportunity for outdoor climbing in the neighborhood. As climbers are wont to do, they scrutinize the route worthiness of every vertical face in sight. When they start scaling brick and concrete, you know they’re in deep. Here, we find them on a bridge and not a crag, but we must admit, it is stone.


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In the spring of 1883 the piers rose above the waterline, and thousands of heavy timbers were forged into arch shaped support structures that the stone would grow out, and over, until the keystone was placed and driven in with heavy wooden mallets.

A spectacle it must have been to see industrial technology merged with techniques from antiquity — trains unloading stone, draft horses dragging enormous blocks along wooden tramways and circling around giant wooden drums, coiling the thick ropes that lift blocks, up and down, onto the growing bridge. Tragedies struck crews when these lines snapped, once killing a winch operator. Again when a support structure crumbled in a violent wind, taking a worker into the depths with the debris.



I asked the climbers if they were worried by any possible consequences of climbing the bridge. There was the park patrol. The possibility of having their equipment confiscated would be the worst. Still not as bad as one other morbid threat they recognized — the possibility of a knife wielding murderer, seizing the opportunity to cut their unguarded anchors from the bridge railing. I agreed, that one was pretty frightening. Having bid them them farewell I left these climbers to the night, returned to the deck of the bridge, made note that the anchor area was clear of psychopaths and began my traverse back to downtown.


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A fter completion in 1884,  at the cost of $650,000, 100 thousand tons of stone and three lives — the bridge immediately began to deliver on its promises. Every railroad in service moved trains across this bridge. Hundreds of thousands of passengers crossed each and every year. At its peak, there were 82 trains every day. By 1978, only four Amtrak trains made use of the stone monument. The last passengers disembarked at Union Station in March of that year, and the bridge, surrounded by the abandoned mills of the recently emigrated flour industry, was forgotten in this district of obscurity. Bookended by chain link blockades, foot traffic trickled to only the most intrepid trespassers and the railroad ties were swallowed by overgrown weeds.


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In the past ten years, the downtown riverside has transformed entirely.

The bridge and mill ruins have been rehabilitated into some of the prime park destinations in the system. Restaurants, entertainment and living spaces draw the population to St. Anthony Main and Riverside Plaza. The St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail and Mill City Museum celebrate the achievement of James Hill and his monument of civil engineering.

When it was completed in 1883, the Minneapolis Tribune printed this about the bridge:

It is constructed to stand the rest of time, until the golden age shall arrive when the problem of aerial navigation shall have been solved, and the railroads and railroad bridges will be useless works of engineering.

Don’t tell that to the climbers.

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 Convinced his hometown of MSP is the world’s greatest balance of urban & outdoor recreation spaces, Joe Jackson continues to collect stories to support his claim.   @jaytothejack


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On January 27, 2015
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