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High schoolers help save historic bridge

Divers Dan Davis (left) and Tom Benson conduct a mussel survey at the Rock Island Swing Bridge site for the State of Minnesota as part of an environmental impact study. Part of the bridge was razed early this year, but a preservation effort by a group of high school students prompted Minnesota’s governor to sign a two-year moratorium on demolition of the rest of the historic structure.  Photo by Bill Klotz

Divers Dan Davis (left) and Tom Benson conduct a mussel survey at the Rock Island Swing Bridge site for the State of Minnesota as part of an environmental impact study. Part of the bridge was razed early this year, but a preservation effort by a group of high school students prompted Minnesota’s governor to sign a two-year moratorium on demolition of the rest of the historic structure. Photo by Bill Klotz

Brian Johnson
Dolan Media Newswires

Minneapolis — A historic bridge in Inver Grove Heights is dodging the wrecking ball with help from an unlikely group of lobbyists: advanced-placement history students at Simley High School.

Part of the 1890s-era Rock Island Swing Bridge was razed early this year and the remaining portion was scheduled for demolition in June. But in May, the Simley students launched a preservation campaign that included e-mails to the governor’s office.

A few days later, Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed a two-year moratorium on demolition, thus buying some time for preservationists, according to the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. A $1.3 million federal stimulus grant and a $100,000 award from the Minnesota Historical Society soon followed.

Energized by the moratorium and the money, the city of Inver Grove Heights recently voted to move ahead with a $2.4 million plan to turn the remaining portion of the span into a “recreational pier” that will be open to the public for fishing, viewing wildlife and watching riverboats.

At its recent Minnesota Preservation Awards event, the alliance recognized the students with a preservation advocacy award. Besides launching the e-mail campaign, the students organized efforts to raise money, collected bridge-related oral histories and set up a bridge preservation Facebook account.

“They are working to engage others through this new technology,” said Bonnie McDonald, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota.

“We think that is very significant — that they are working to raise awareness for cultural landmarks and historic landmarks among their peers and using that technology. We felt it was a model for others across the state to engage a new audience in the preservation of their landmarks.”

State Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, who sponsored the two-year moratorium bill, said it was “heart-warning to see history students get engaged in saving history.

“That bridge has been granted more reprieves from a death sentence than just about anything I have seen,” Atkins added. “There have been at least a dozen times where I thought it was over. That thing has more lives than a cat.

“And so far it has been a grant magnet. … It feels like it is a very appealing project to a lot of folks that believe in preserving a piece of history.”

McDonald said she believes the Rock Island Swing Bridge is the only bridge of its kind remaining on the Mississippi River. Even though much of the bridge has been taken down, McDonald said the remaining piece is worth saving.

She said she considers the proposed reuse as a success story.

“The entire bridge might have been lost. At this point, at least the public can use a portion of it,” she said.

The U.S. Coast Guard is asking for the removal of three bridge piers that are in the navigable channel. But the Coast Guard’s requirements would not affect the recreational pier project.

The project enjoys strong support in the community, according to Eric Carlson, Inver Grove Heights parks and recreation director.

“There is a feeling that if it is preserved as a pier, it could help drive redevelopment along Concord Boulevard,” Carlson said.

Built in 1895, the Rock Island Swing Bridge featured an unusual split-level designed that allowed it to carry trains and horse-powered vehicles. At one point, according to the National Park Service, bank robber John Dillinger used the bridge to elude the police.

By the 1990s, the bridge was considered unsafe, and it was closed to traffic in 1999.

The project has run into some roadblocks in recent months, including uncertainty over who would pay for the Coast Guard-required pier removals. The state has verbally committed to pay for those pier removals at an estimated cost of $300,000 to $400,000, Carlson said.

The city has requested $300,000 from the Dakota County, leaving the city’s portion at $720,000.

Carlson believes the project is now in a position to move forward by Nov. 13, which is the use-it-or-lose-it deadline for the federal stimulus money.

“We think we have cleared all the hurdles,” Carlson said.

One comment

  1. I live in Ozark MO and just started an initiative to save the Riverside Bridge in Ozark MO a couple of weeks ago after hearing that the Commissioners want to replace it. This has inspired me and given me hope. Thank you!

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