An ambulance from Lakeview Hospital raced across the Stillwater Lift Bridge at dusk on August 2, picking its way through a crowd of spectators and cars taking their last trip across the bridge after 86 years of operation.
Thousands were gathered to say goodbye. At 8 p.m., the new St. Croix Crossing south of town would open, and the Lift Bridge would close.
It felt like the whole town was there, from infants, including my nine-month-old, to old-timers who had lived through its opening in 1931.
Earlier in the day, getting on a shuttle bus for the new bridge’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, I met a 92-year-old man who had spent his formative years near Big Marine Lake and traveling the countryside with his salesman father, taking the Marine ferry at times, and had been there when the new bridge opened.
Later, he joined the Marines and served in the Pacific, which was enough for me to let him cut in line.
Living with lifts
The Lift Bridge opened in 1931, the same year as the Empire State Building.
All my life, each time I crossed the antique steel structure, I felt a little more connected to history. Timing my summer travel to avoid lifts and traffic jams was an anachronism, a quaint ritual.
It was also a bother.
Main Street in Stillwater is also Highway 95, a major Minnesota travel route. It carries a lot of traffic to start with, and the effects of stopping the cars every half-hour for about 10 minutes was frequently frustrating. The noise and stench and dangers of cars also hurt the quality of the downtown experience, as tourists and locals alike fought for space with drivers.
The bridge didn’t only connect me to an older story of Stillwater, but every time I went over it, I experienced something that had been with me for all my years.
Coming down the hill from Wisconsin and seeing the bridge with the town across the river behind it has been imprinted on my mind since my first days. Driving between the steel girders always felt like driving through a tunnel, except there was a view of wide-open river flashing past my window.
I have few specific memories of crossing the bridge, but a single strong collective feeling built up over 35 years.
Goodnight, old buddy
The night before it closed, a group of guys who grew up in Stillwater got together for a monthly gathering. We started at the Lift Bridge brewery’s taproom and then headed downtown, where we watched cars cross the bridge one last time as we were perched on a rooftop patio.
Emotions ranged from relief to sadness to dismissal. For some it would mean easier commutes, to others the loss of a personal touchpoint, and to others, it was just a damn bridge.
We walked the length of the levy before heading home. Anglers watched lines, groups of teenagers roamed through Lowell Park, and cars rumbled across the steel and concrete span.
It occurred to me that what we would lose when the bridge closed to cars was something both old and functional. Each time we crossed the St. Croix, we depended on the work of our forebears.
At long last
The next morning, I unexpectedly crossed the new bridge for my first time.
I attended the ribbon-cutting event along with a couple thousand other people. We took a bus from the disused Fury Motors parking lot at Highway 36 and Osgood Ave. a short distance to the spot on the bridge where the dignitaries would speak.
The ceremony was predictable. Politicians spoke, their words obscured by wind, and a giant pair of scissors was put to use for multiple photo opportunities.
It was chaotic trying to get on the busses afterwards. I had my five-year-old daughter along, and she was hot and tired as we navigated the crowd to find a bus. Our car was parked a quarter-mile away, Fury Motors almost visible, and it would have been faster to walk back if we weren’t trapped between barriers and busy roads.
But when we finally got on the bus, the driver didn’t just turn around, but followed others out over the river. Phones were pulled out of pockets to record the trip, and the riders applauded when we passed by the first pylon.
The ambulance on August 2 disappeared into the Wisconsin bluff and the festivities on the bridge, in Lowell Park, and on the river resumed.
The city council had passed a one-day ordinance allowing open containers of alcohol, so we wandered through the crowd with beers in hand and marveling at what seemed to be a pretty spontaneous community party.
Nobody really seemed to know what was going on. The designated time of 8 p.m. came and went and cars were still crossing. Then murmurs went through the crowd as we noticed vehicles driving across the new bridge in the distance.
Eventually a parade of classic vehicles proceeded onto the old span, one from each decade of its life.
The last one was a fancy Stutz DV-32 convertible also built in 1931, with Stillwater mayor Ted Kozlowski and his wife Rachael in the back. They waved and smiled as the crowd clapped and cheered.
An old Ford Bronco did what must have been the last burnout on the bridge, sending blue smoke over the river. I heard later they did in fact get a ticket.
After the Stutz drove back into Minnesota, the bridge’s work was done. A MnDOT truck carrying barriers poked through the crowd to post the closed signs.
I imagine the ambulance came back across the river on the new bridge, probably fighting its way past everyone who had lined up to drive on the beautiful span.
Emergency services were one of the most compelling arguments for a new bridge. When the bridge was up, or during its increasingly-frequent repairs, response times from Stillwater to western Wisconsin would be significantly longer. The hospital parked an ambulance on the Wisconsin side during extended closures.
A new point-of-view
The new bridge is indeed a work of art, low-slung and sandstone-colored, with elegant cable stays and pillars.
It is worth noting that the reason it has these features, and numerous other details designed to protect the river, is because people fought for maximum mitigation.
It took way too long to get started building this bridge, but a big part of that delay was due to fighting back a generic freeway-style span and making sure the bridge would honor the beautiful Wild & Scenic River it crossed.
When we drove across it that morning, the sky and the water were deep blue. Looking upriver, I saw the valley and my hometown from an angle I had never seen before.
Stillwater looked smaller than when I would see it coming toward the Lift Bridge from Wisconsin. It appeared as a cluster of buildings surrounded by wooded bluffs, like it has since its founding.
An opening for opportunity
The traffic definitely won’t be so bad downtown anymore. There’s been lots of discussion about how Stillwater should adapt and take advantage of this change. It’s exciting.
But I don’t think the traffic will make the biggest difference.
What has changed the most is the mindset of being set upon by the interstate traffic. For too long, the citizens and businesses of Stillwater have been focused on fixing that problem, and now it’s time to see what else they can do when they put their minds to it.
The real potential will be revealed in two years, when the restored Lift Bridge is opened to bicyclists and pedestrians. Stillwater should be more welcoming than ever.
In the meantime, it is still raising for boats, meaning a bridge tender is still working in the booth. It must be a lot more peaceful without cars driving five feet away.