LOOKBACK: Secondhand bridge crossed old bend of Cedar for 3 decades
Narrow crossing once part of Austin’s state park but removed to create new entry to downtown when Interstate 90 opened
Just before the iron-truss bridge, a pickup truck stopped in December 1952 to allow a bus to go through the narrow crossing over the Cedar River in Austin’s state park.
Another driver was not able to do the same and collided with the back of the pickup, damaging the vehicle.
Other accidents occurred at the Fox Drive bridge (today’s 4th Street Northeast along the Hormel Foods plant’s west side), including some in the 1950s in which motorists were ticketed for careless driving after crashing into the bridge.
Local drivers knew maneuvering was required when using the Fox Drive bridge in Horace Austin State Park to cross the Cedar, which had a horseshoe-shaped bend flowed under it into Austin Mill Pond.
“You go north on Fox Drive, swing left a bit and cross the Cedar River bridge, being careful not to lock horns with opposing traffic,” the Austin Daily Herald wrote Oct. 28, 1959.
A trucker who drove semi into Austin four to five days a week shared his dislike for the bridge with the Herald in 1953.
“I don’t like to meet anyone on that bridge,” the trucker, Owen Siebring, was quoted Jan. 13, 1953. “And going north, I have to swing my truck clear into the middle of the bridge in order to clear it with the rear of my truck.”
The bridge’s narrow width — 20 feet — was the reason Austin was able to get the vehicle bridge in 1931 as well as a big reason local officials removed it 30 years later.
In early 1931, the iron bridge — a crossing over the Root River’s north branch three miles south of Chatfield on what was Minnesota Highway 20 (today’s U.S. 52) — was “being dismantled to make room for a new and wider structure, which all federal highways demand,” the Winona Republican Herald wrote Feb. 5, 1931.
In place for only two years over the Root, the bridge did not meet new standards of 24 feet for the minimum width of a federal highway, the Herald wrote Oct. 28, 1959. The bridge’s removal was part of a major project to create a new, paved and “unbroken” highway connecting Minneapolis/St. Paul with Chicago.
Second life over the Cedar
Over the years, Austinites thought about a bridge to cross the Cedar River’s swampland backwaters known today as Austin Mill Pond that — unlike back then — is shaped like a small lake. For Austin’s first 60-plus years, this stretch of the Cedar was dotted with islands and covered areas with water that now are part of the mainland, including the city’s present-day outdoor pool and adjacent playground.
Potential for a bridge in this area greatly improved when the Minnesota Legislature in 1913 approved the creation of a state park in Austin named in honor of the state’s sixth governor Horace Austin. Major improvements, including dredging and filling parts of the river, ensued into the 1920s.
Prior to the state park’s creation from about 1915 to the early 1920s, North Main Street used to drop off into a swampy, backwater area of the Cedar River about one block north of old Water Street or Fourth Avenue Northeast.
Some of the earliest talks about creating a crossing through the swampland was in 1900 when a Mower County commissioner race got heated due to allegations of one candidate promising such a bridge.
Candidate “Mr. Birkett” was accused of getting nominated for commissioner for the purpose of building a bridge across the Cedar River in the backwaters area to support a few property owners on North Main Street’s north end, the Herald wrote Nov. 1, 1900.
Such a bridge would cost $40,000 to $50,000 (nearly $1.6 million in today’s dollars) and the county would need to build the bridge with the city paying for the approaches.
“This scheme to build a bridge is so costly to the taxpayers, so unnecessary and uncalled for that it has been a matter of general concern and talk since Mr. Birkett’s nomination,” the Herald wrote. “During all this time, Mr. Birkett has remained as silent as an oyster. He is at last smoked out by public sentiment and by the indignation of the people against the attempt to squander $40,000 or more for such purposes.”
Birkett made a statement on the election’s eve assuring people the allegation was false.
In the succeeding years, the idea of foot bridges came up when the community was discussing options for how to develop Horace Austin State Park. One option was to leave the backwaters along (don’t create a lake-shaped waterbody) and build foot bridges to the various islands.
A wooden walkway was in place where the iron bridge ended up being placed in 1931. The walkway was maintained by the city “for many years” and built when “the park was swamp, before the dredges cleared the channel and filled in” areas now part of the mainland today, the Herald wrote Oct. 29, 1959.
In August 1931, state highway officials sought bids for reconstructing the bridge at its new home over the Cedar in Horace Austin State Park. This happened before the state reclassified Horace Austin State Park in 1937 as a “scenic wayside.” State legislators then transferred ownership in 1949 of the state park land to the City of Austin.
Two advantages came from adding a vehicle bridge to the state park.
Mower County — which owns bridges in the county — got the bridge for cheap from the state and it was better than having nothing there, the Herald wrote in 1959. Prior to the bridge, traffic from downtown to the original Hormel plant (closer to the river than the present plant) had to go around by way of 7th Street Northeast on the river’s east side above the dam.
With the new bridge, Austin officials developed a new road to bring Main Street traffic across the river, heading northeasterly along the Hormel plant’s west side.
In summer 1933, the city officially designated the new road as “Fox Drive” in honor of Charles Fox, a manager of Horace Austin State Park who made the drive and iron bridge possible. He recounted details of the bridge transaction in 1959 with the Herald.
Once in possession of the bridge, Austin and Mower County leaders soon realized the bridge was not a perfect fit. The bridge spanned 154 feet, which was too short to cross the Cedar River on a straight line with Main Street so crews “had to slant it slightly at the narrowest point,” the Herald wrote in 1959.
“The result has been a traffic bottleneck all these years,” the Herald wrote.
Over the years, the bridge was used by vehicles and, at times, young swimmers jumping off it into the Cedar.
By 1954, the city and county opted to build a 5-foot-wide, concrete walkway on the bridge for pedestrians as part of the city’s long-range effort to build a sidewalk from North Main to a residential area north of Austin Mill Pond, wrote the Herald on Feb. 18, 1954. They started construction in February to use the river ice as a base to build it while also widening the road approaches to the crossing.
Making Austin’s back door its front door
In fall 1959, the county board committed to $100,000 (about $925,000 in today’s dollars) to build a new bridge over the Cedar at Fox Drive given the nearby construction of a major “Belt Line” highway to the north. This “Belt Line” became Interstate 90, which in late 1960 was the first section of the freeway built in Minnesota. Austin’s section of I-90 formally was opened in November 1961.
“A good omen for the future is the expressed intention of Mower County commissioners to construct a new bridge across the Cedar on Fox Drive,” the Herald wrote Oct. 29, 1959.
County and city officials worked together to develop Fox Drive “in the way it should be developed as an important link to the highway Belt Line,” the Herald wrote. The county’s cooperation on the bridge allowed the city to plan for widening and improving Fox Drive.
The iron-truss bridge was “hazardously narrow. Traffic flow is already heavy on Fox Drive, and it will obviously increase considerably when the Belt Line and the new interstate highway are completed.”
With the old bridge needing to be placed in 1931 further west than desired so it would reach both sides of the river, “it was obvious that the bridge would have to be replaced in the comparatively near future” probably east of the iron bridge.
Traffic counts in 1959 also showed the need for a new bridge. About 1,200 passenger cars parked in Hormel’s back lot each day along with another 400 cattle trucks; plus, 200 commercial carriers hauling finished Hormel products used the road daily.
Plans were for a two-year project starting in summer 1960 when the city would widen and improve the road from the junction of the Belt Line going south to the private Hormel plant road.
A few months later, the Herald reported on Jan. 21, 1960, that officials were mulling two options for the new bridge and river:
· Move the new bridge’s 55 feet to the east of the iron bridge to line up the new Fox Drive with North Main Street and keep in place the Cedar River’s horseshoe-shaped bend into Austin Mill Pond.
· Straighten the road by filling the Cedar’s old “horseshoe swing” and place the new bridge about 400 feet east of the iron bridge over a newly cut channel into Austin Mill Pond.
City leaders in February 1960 approved a design for the new Fox Drive bridge along with the plan to rechannel the Cedar River and fill the “horseshoe swing” of the Cedar west and north of Fox Drive, the Herald wrote Feb. 6, 1960.
Filling the river bend was projected to take more than 100,000 cubic yards of dirt and be done “over the years as fill is available.” That’s about 7,000 to 10,000 dump truck loads of dirt. One area in the bend needed as much as 25 feet of fill.
By late 1960, the Belt Line highway was 90 percent done and the city and county approved a plan for the new Fox Drive approach from it.
In January 1961, the Herald ran a photo of the new bridge under construction, describing it as “over a river that isn’t there.” The Jan. 17, 1961, article stated the Cedar’s new channel would be dug after the bridge’s completion.
During this time, the old iron bridge had to be closed in March 1961 due to major flooding, which the crossing endured a few times in its life.
Bids went out in August 1961 for crews to cut the Cedar’s new channel and do related work once the new crossing was completed. This included filling the river’s shoreline along North Main, which was widened and moved 25 feet to the east.
Expectations were for increased traffic along Fox Drive into downtown Austin once the new freeway opened.
Come fall 1961, I-90 was opened for traffic and the northern view of Austin Mill Pond was quite different.
“A look down North Main Street presents a very considerable transformation with a new road now flung across the Cedar River channel, and within a relatively short time,” the Herald wrote Oct. 20, 1961.
Plans were to open the new road to vehicles the following week.
When completed, the project “will represent a very considerable improvement in the appearance of the city’s ‘front yard’,” wrote the Herald, which ran a headline: “City’s ‘Back Door’ Becomes ‘Front Door’ by Changing River.”
City officials emphasized that filling the river’s old channel would be done as material became available from other work likely over three to four years. In paving contracts, the city specified that excavated material from projects be used to fill the old river bend.
Photos in the Nov. 25, 1961, Herald — titled “The New Scenic Cedar” — showed the new and old bridges, the new river channel and the former river bend waiting to be filled.
“Machines can change the course of a river as events can alter the course of time. And the Red Cedar River as it flows through Austin takes a new course,” the Herald wrote, adding that “ducks have found the new waterway their home.”
This old bend of the Cedar — referred to as a “horseshoe bend” — would run today through the northwest corner of Austin Mill Pond through the back parking lot of the old Austin YMCA and around Bremer Bank.
Two months later, crews started dismantling the old, iron-truss bridge as vehicles drove by just east of it on the new North Main-Fox Drive route.
Soon after, work began on a new facility for the YMCA of Austin, which opened in 1963 just up the hill from the old river bend. Eventually, the YMCA –now located in a new facility above the downtown dam — expanded toward Austin Mill Pond, creating parking lots where the Cedar River was flowed in a curve.
An additional North Main crossing then was built in 1966 over the Cedar River several blocks north of the old crossing and just downstream from the two I-90 bridges over the Cedar.
Decades later, the entire area of the former state park, iron-truss bridge and “horseshoe” bend of the Cedar River has changed drastically with commercial and residential developments now protected by a multi-million-dollar system of flood-protective walls and berms.
Where the old Fox Drive bridge once crossed the Cedar River, 7th Place Northwest meets North Main amongst boulevards, parking lots and a bank.
Research assistance provided by the Mower County Historical Society, Fillmore County Historical Society and the Minnesota Department of Transportation.