Commissioned by famous railroad tycoon James J. Hill in the early 1880s, the Stone Arch Bridge was the answer city leaders were seeking to bring railroad passengers directly into the growing Minneapolis business district.
It is the second oldest bridge—and the only arched bridge made of stone—on the entire length of the Mississippi. Hill had initially proposed an iron bridge at Nicollet Island. But his engineer, Charles C. Smith, recognized that building a bridge in that location could damage the limestone bedrock beneath St. Anthony Falls and lead to erosion. Wisely, the Stone Arch Bridge was built to span the river at a wider location below St. Anthony Falls, where it would not be a threat to the falls (and the city’s lumber and flour mills).
Built of local limestone and granite, the Stone Arch Bridge was a feat of engineering, consisting of 23 graceful arches that curved diagonally across the river to accommodate the topography of the site. At the time, other engineers thought that it would be impossible to build a stone arch bridge for rail traffic. They assumed that the weight and vibration of the trains would cause the stone to crumble, but the solid structure still stands today.
The bridge has been altered somewhat during its history. Two arches were removed in the 1960s to accommodate the construction of the lock and dam system that sits just upstream from the bridge. A steel truss was used to span the gap, reducing the number of arches from 23 to 21. And in 1965, record flood waters undermined two of the bridge’s piers, causing one side of the bridge to sag. It was closed for six months for repair, but the bridge did not fall. If you look closely, evidence of the flood is still visible on the south face of the bridge near the east end.
The Stone Arch Bridge served rail passengers through high times and panics, through the boom times in the 1920s and the depression of the 1930s, and through two world wars. But the railroad could not keep up with the automobile, and the passenger rail business became unprofitable. The last train crossed the Stone Arch Bridge on March 1, 1978, but it is still seen as a symbol of the railroad age, today.
The bridge sat unused until a group of public and private organizations raised the $2.5 million to refurbish it as a pedestrian bridge and bicycle trail. It reopened in 1994 and offers a panoramic view of St. Anthony Falls and a wonderful way to enjoy the beautiful Minneapolis Riverfront. It is a key link in the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail, a two-mile trail with an extensive system of interpretive and directional signs and kiosks.
Charles C. Smith
Bicycle Trail and Pedestrian Crossing
The Stone Arch Bridge Festival is held annually on Father’s Day weekend, featuring two days of visual arts and musical performances.