ST. PAUL, MN - In February 1985, after weeks of careful preparation, a demolition crew detonated seventy-six pounds of plastic explosives placed on the Smith Avenue High Bridge over the Mississippi River, sending them crashing into the water below. Crowds of onlookers cheered. This first step toward building its replacement ended a direct link between communities that had spanned nearly ninety-six years.
The bridge opened to traffic in May 1889 as a connection between the west side and downtown St. Paul via the Uppertown neighborhood. Unfortunately, despite a series of minor and significant updates over its history, beginning as early as 1915, the high bridge couldn't keep up with ever-evolving modes of travel. They built it for slow-moving horses and carriages, not the automobile.
On July 25, 1984, MN/DOT officials determined the bridge was structurally unsafe and either needed wholesale repairs or to be replaced. It was soon after closed to vehicular and pedestrian traffic for the last time. The final chapter of the (old) bridge's story was to be written on Sunday, February 24, 1985.
February was chosen because it typically was the month with the least amount of barge traffic traveling that part of the river.
While workers removed the section of the High Bridge above Shepard Road the month prior, a detonation crew from Controlled Demolition Inc. in Phoenix, MD, began traversing the river spans. They strategically placed one-hundred-and-eighty separate charges in twenty-two different locations.
On the morning of the 24th, crowds of people, reportedly upwards of twenty-five thousand at one point, lined the banks of the Mississippi River in anticipation of the impending explosion. Anxious spectators could be seen wherever there was a clear view of the bridge. However, they couldn't get within one-thousand feet of the blast zone for safety reasons.
By 11:30 AM, Harriet Island was packed. Families grilled food while kids played touch football — almost everyone had a camera or set of binoculars (or both) at the ready. They were far from alone; spectators packed locations all over downtown. At one point, so many people were watching from the Wabasha St. Bridge that it was closed to automobile traffic.
Shepard Rd. and Water St. were also closed.
Excitement resonated through the air as the clock reached the scheduled noon detonation time. The weather was perfect.
The historic moment spectators came out to see passed without as much as a murmur. Because of minor wiring issues and poor pre-cutting of bridge sections, the day's big blast was delayed.
1:30 PM was soon considered as a revised deadline. Nothing. Next, 2:00 PM. Then 2:30 came and passed. The crowds grew restless — some people even left. The delays prolonged the event atmosphere found throughout downtown and led to some significant traffic problems, but eventually thinned.
At 3:45 PM, the stage was set. Minutes later, crews sounded a siren for fifteen seconds to announce a "five-minute warning" before the blast. Another short siren sounded with one minute and fifteen seconds to go, followed by a final one-second-long siren when only fifteen seconds remained.
While many spectators had gone home to catch the big event on the six o'clock news, some stayed to watch the old bridge fall. At 3:55 PM, a moment of truth worthy of the long wait finally came. A loud blast was followed by crumpled steel and twisted cable splashing into the river below. A short, all-clear siren sounded soon after.
In the end, it took about three and a half seconds to demolish nearly one hundred years of St. Paul history. People in the crowd cheered. Many of those who had stayed felt it was well worth it.
The feelings of excitement weren't universal. West St. Paul residents and businesses on the bridge's south side lamented the loss of their direct link to the other side of the river.
In either case, with the event having ended, the crowds dispersed, some people taking souvenirs of mangled metal. However, the work was far from done. Crews began fishing the bridge's remains from the river the following day. In addition, they began dismantling the bridge spans north of Shepard Road.
The (new) High Bridge was completed and opened to traffic on July 26, 1987.
- El-Hai, Jack. Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
- Meryhew, Richard. "Blasting of High Bridge expected to draw thousands." Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 24, 1985, 17A.
- Meryhew, Richard. "Thousands watch fall of historic High Bridge." Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 25, 1985, 1.
- Minneapolis Star Tribune. "High Bridge Razing is Today." February 24, 1985, 1A.
- Schloss, R. "St. Paul High Bridge 1985 Explosive Demolition Local News." YouTube. September 7, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7lxI5dpANMg.
- St. Paul's High Bridge 1889 - 1985. Minnesota: Minnesota Department of Transportation: A Photo-Essay of the History of a St. Paul Landmark, 1985.
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