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Posted on Sun, Jun. 06, 2004

Mississippi Memory: Hastings bridge: History with a twist




Plans for the Hastings riverfront are as fluid as the Mississippi that flows by. But in a park near the American Legion, a world-famous structure once defined the inventive genius of this Dakota County river town.

Development plans are in the works. But before striking out in any particular direction, let's consider what occupied that parcel in the past. There's no better place to start than the drawing on the city of Hastings stationery.

The unofficial Hastings emblem is a unique "spiral bridge" at the root of the town's spirit despite the fact that the bridge met its end in 1951.

Try to envision this structural work of wonder. The north approach was nothing special. But that bank is considerably higher than the one on the south, at the heart of the town's business district.

This wasn't an issue with the rope ferry in 1895. Passengers to Hastings could leave the ferry, walk a few steps and buy their goods.

But when it was determined the rope ferry should be replaced, Hastings faced a problem that confronted many another commercial district positioned to take advantage of river traffic.

With a bridge, all that traffic would end up several blocks south of the stores. Because the north bank was higher than the south, a bridge directly from one shore to the other would slope at an unacceptable angle.

The solution: build a curlicue on the south end.

If you've ever played with road race sets, you'll remember attaching four curved pieces of track so the cars would circle around from a raised run to the floor. That's more or less how the Spiral Bridge worked. Instead of bypassing the businesses, traffic spiraled around and was deposited about a block from the riverbank.

Having trouble imagining this? Go to Hastings. Walk the historic main street Second Street and step into any shop. You're likely to see a picture of the bridge. You'll probably see more than one. Its image is on everything from plates to postcards to needlepoint pillow covers.

It's on a clock at the tourism bureau. In the old county courthouse, the Pioneer Room has a scale model. Or look at a city-owned vehicle. There's the Spiral Bridge again.

So what happened?

Like the rope ferry, the Spiral Bridge was a victim of progress.

The need to replace or rebuild was apparent by the end of World War II. Once capable of carrying nearly the same weight load as a bridge built today, the load limit had dropped to a mere 4 tons. Rust claimed 75 percent of some spots. Tires rolling across the worn planks were damaged by protruding spikes.

There was a division of opinion, much as there is now regarding use of the place where the bridge once stood.

Local women's clubs, the Dakota County Historical Society and the Fraternal Order of Eagles lobbied to keep it. But a trust fund would need a guaranteed $10,000. And that was only part of what would be required to save the span. Yearly maintenance alone would be $1,000. Liability insurance would add more. The cost of tearing it down was just $5,000. And some of the expense could be deferred by selling it for salvage.

And yet, the preservationists almost pulled it off. A bill to save the bridge passed both houses and was awaiting Gov. Luther Youngdahl's signature when he was buttonholed by Hastings businesses determined to kill it. The bill suffered a pocket veto.

The April day in 1895, when the opening of the spiral bridge was celebrated with the boom of a cannon and a feast for more than 5,000 people, was long past. The view was toward the future. And Hastings lost its greatest landmark.

But something else was born: a spirit of salvation. When anyone suggests destroying a Hastings landmark, the cry goes out: "Remember the Spiral Bridge!"

The result is a beautiful downtown that thrives, despite the bypass that is the south approach of the current Highway 61 bridge. And down where new development is under consideration, in the little park that graces the edge of a bend in the Mississippi, there is a plaque on what's left of an old abutment.

It commemorates Hastings' famed, fantastic, never-to-be-forgotten Spiral Bridge.

MISSISSIPPI TRAVELOGUE

Writer Chuck Strinz's latest project is Back On The Mississippi (http://www.backonthemississippi.com/), a humorous travel documentary debuting on Twin Cities Public Television and other PBS affiliates June 27 as part of the Grand Excursion 2004 celebration.

MEMORIES

Have a Mississippi Memory to share? Send your letters or short essays to Mississippi Memories, St. Paul Pioneer Press Opinion Page, 345 Cedar St., St. Paul, MN 55101; fax them to 651-228-5564; or e-mail them to acoulson@pioneerpress.com.


Strinz of Eagan is a freelance writer. E-mail him at chuck.strinz@giz.com.

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