Friday, Nov. 24, 1883: Stone Arch Bridge opens

Posted on February 20th, 2008 – 5:59 PM
By Ben Welter

The Daily Minnesota Tribune buried this detailed look at the new Stone Arch Bridge inside the paper, sandwiched between a society column and court records.



One of the arches under construction in 1883. (Photo courtesy

It cost $650,000 and Weighs 100,000 Tons – It is Composed of Twenty-Three Arches, and is 2100 Feet Long – A Structure of Great Solidity and Beauty, and An Enduring Monument.

Yesterday, in the most quiet manner, without ostentation or previous announcement, the magnificent stone arch bridge across the Mississippi at Minneapolis, was completed and opened, the first engine crossing it carrying the highest officials of the Manitoba road. This viaduct, which has now been nearly three years in building, is the only one of its kind that spans the Father of Waters, and is one of the longest and most noteworthy in the United States. Firmer than the earth which supports it, it is constructed to stand the test of time until the golden age shall arrive when the problem of aerial navigation shall have been solved, and railroads and railroad bridges will be useless works of engineering. Contrary to the idea of a good many, this bridge is not the property of the Manitoba railroad company, nor was it constructed by that corporation. I and the tracks which connect it with the Manitoba line, the grounds for the new depot, and the structure itself when it shall have been built – all these are the property of the Minneapolis Union Railroad Company. The Manitoba owns, however, a great majority of the stock of the company, and guaranteed its $3,000,000 bonds, the majority of which will be expended in the construction of the bridge, the building of the track and approaches, the purchase of the right of way and the erection of the depot. By the charter of this company, all the railroads coming to the city are admitted to equal privileges of both the bridge and depot.


James J. Hill, the railroad tycoon who built the bridge, is referred to only as “President Hill” in the accompanying story.

For the Manitoba crossing over the river was made about three and a half years ago by C.S. Smith, an engineer of St. Louis. The scheme was to make the crossing on an iron bridge above the falls. About three years ago Col. C.C. Smith was appointed chief engineer of the road and suggested to President Hill another plan, which was adopted and the consummation of which is now and accomplished fact. A stone bridge was fixed upon as being more durable, and the location was decided upon below instead of above the falls for two or three reasons. First, it would be freer of danger from ice, as this destructive element is broken into small pieces and made less dangerous by going over the falls. Down below, too, a better foundation could be secured for the piers, as it was easier to build coffer dams, and so work on the dry bottom of the river. Another reason for the change of location was that it will afford passengers a better view of the falls, and its approaches will be more easy of access from the depot, and a crossing with other lines is avoided. The bridge was commenced in February, 1881, and has been completed almost in accordance with the original plans and specifications, except in one particular that foundations to the immense arches, some of them spanning 100 feet, caissons were sunk six or eight feet below the bottom of the river to the firm sand rock beneath. The piers being constructed wooden frame arches called “centers” were thrown up upon the top of which the stones were laid, until the keystone was inserted, enabling the arch to stand alone.


Nearing completion in 1883. (Photo courtesy

Are 23 in number, the entire length being 2100 feet. They are divided as follows: Three spans of 40 feet each, 16 of 1800 feet, and four of 100. The top of the bridge is 28 feet wide, affording ample room for two tracks and is guarded by a strong coping. The tracks, which were laid yesterday, are stone ballasted, and are laid with every precaution. When the bridge was first planned it was not known that the Minneapolis Mill Company would allow an arch to be constructed over the roadway leading to the platform, and it was thought that this part of the structure would have to be of iron, but the necessary permission was finally obtained, and this arch has the honor of bearing upon its keystone the only inscription of the bridge – the figures “1883.” The bridge is not straight, having a curve of 6 degrees, of 966 feet radius at its west end, about 800 feet of the structure being on the curve. This part of the bridge, also, is on a slight up grade.


The structure cost about $650,000 and contains about 100,000 tons of material. Its piers are of St. Cloud granite; the sheathing and face of the spandels and the caping and parapets are of magnesian limestone, a large amount of it being qyarried at Stone City, Ia., which furnished also the material for the Boston block. The backing and filling are of natural limestone. The largest number of men at work at any one time was 200. Two of the workmen have lost their lives by unavoidable accident. One was working upon one of the centers when it fell with him into the river, and he was drowned. The other casualty was where a Swede was driving a horse in a circular horsepower, the sweep of which by an accident flew back and killed him.


Thanks to low water levels, the bridge’s graceful arches were even more striking in the mid-1880s. (Photo courtesy

The bridge was built under the personal supervision of Col. Smith, who made the first plans for it. Mr. W.H. Knowlton was the assistant engineer and Ed Darragh, who died last January, was the contractor. Joseph Hickey was the master mason and Andy McNeil of Minneapolis the master carpenter.

It was inspected yesterday by Col. Smith, President Hill and General Manager Manvel of the Manitoba road; Mr. Brown, a United States capitalist, and Mr. George A. Brackett of this city. These gentlemen rode across the structure in an engine, and then walking back to the center, the engine was driven past them at a rate of 20 miles an hour, there being no trembling of the bridge noticeable, showing that the track had as firm a foundation as the solid ground.
Although the bridge is now entirely done, it will not be used until next summer, or when the new depot at the west end of the suspension bridge is completed. Meanwhile it will be fenced up and no one allowed to pass. It will make a great difference in the passenger traffic of Minneapolis. All the roads coming to the city have concluded arrangements to use it and the depot, with the exception of the Milwaukee road, which will probably not abandon its present short line for passenger traffic, except perhaps for its through trains. This structure will shorten by 10 minutes the present time between here and St. Paul, as trains leaving the depot can immediately put on full steam and run through as fast as may be necessary. The actual distance will be shortened, being but nine and a half miles, the track going over what is known as the University switch to the Manitoba short line. The bridge now in use will be devoted to freight business entirely.

The Exposition Building, site of the 1892 Republican National Convention, is framed by one of the bridge’s arches in about 1910. (Photo courtesy

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