Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

More than Bridge 4667 in the Minnesota River Valley April 12, 2021

AS DAD GUIDED HIS CHEVY Impala along Highway 19 into the Minnesota River Valley near Morton with our family sandwiched inside, I felt a sense of exhilaration. The change in landscape—from flat prairie farm fields to hills and valley—excited me. It was like driving into another world, albeit only 20 some miles east of our farm place.

We were headed to The Cities, as we called, and I still term, Minneapolis and St. Paul. Our destination—my aunt and uncle’s house along Bryant Avenue South in Minneapolis. Once or twice a year, our family of eight, plus Grandpa, packed into one vehicle for the several hours long drive.

It wasn’t often we traveled. Dad milked cows, so one of his brothers had to do the chores for a day. On the morning of departure, we arose early, our nervous energy palpable. Soon we were on our way, stopping to pick up Grandpa in Redwood Falls, then aiming east toward the Minnesota River Valley.

The Sulphur Lake Bridge (Bridge 4667). MnDOT image from the KLGR radio website.

Sweeping into the valley, all of us kids were on high alert, waiting for the moment when the Chevy would cross The Troll Bridge over an overflow channel of the Minnesota River.

This is what I pictured lurking beneath the bridge near Morton. This illustration comes from Three Billy Goats Gruff. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

When the tires hit the bridge deck, we started pounding on the roof of the car. To scare away the trolls.

One of my favorite childhood books, gifted to me by a blog reader. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

I have no idea how this tradition started. But I suspect it was an effort by our parents to keep us from getting bored and fighting as siblings are wont to do when sitting too close together for too long. Well, this temporary distraction worked. And the memory of that roof pounding tactic to scare off trolls has stuck with me more than half a century later. To this day, I associate aged truss bridges with those rare family trips to Minneapolis. This also connects to one of my favorite childhood storybooks, Three Billy Goats Gruff. In that tale, three goats attempt to cross a bridge under which a troll lurks.

Such are the prompts and content of memories.

Historical details on a sign posted high above the bridge deck of the historic Waterford Bridge over the Cannon River in Dakota County. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

Because of that, I reacted with dismay when I read on the website of Redwood Falls-based KLGR radio that The Troll Bridge, formally known as Sulphur Lake Bridge (Bridge 4667) is being removed this fall. Apparently the 1927 historic bridge, which was bypassed in a 1994 road improvement project and then closed in 2010 to all traffic, has deteriorated to “in poor condition overall” status. This saddens me. When we lose a bridge that was among the largest constructed in the state during a Minnesota Highway Department bridge construction program in the late 1920s, we lose an important part of architectural, local, and sometimes personal, history.

Weeds, wildflowers and other plant growth surround the abandoned Waterford Bridge of similar construction to the Sulphur Lake Bridge. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

Cost of removing the 169-foot long bridge with a 117-foot riveted Camelback through-truss main span is estimated at $980,000. I recognize the Minnesota Department of Transportation did its homework in reaching this decision. But still…I wish this bridge could be saved.

The historic Waterford Bridge. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

Some historic Minnesota bridges have been saved—more than 40 in the past 20 years, according to MnDOT. Others are on a list for rehabilitation. Like the Waterford Bridge I visited and photographed last summer near Northfield in Dakota County. Other bridges have been relocated with one currently listed as an “available bridge”.

The aged bridge in Honner Township in Redwood County will soon join the list of “lost bridges” documented by MnDOT. It may be Sulphur Lake Bridge (Bridge 4667) to officials in St. Paul. But to me, this will always be The Troll Bridge. The bridge of family memories.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

An architecturally historic bridge in Waterford Township November 9, 2020

NOTE: This post features photos from a mid-August stop at the historic Waterford bridge near Northfield, Minnesota.

The historic Waterford Bridge, located in Waterford Township in Dakota County, Minnesota.

 

TO THE MINNESOTA DEPARTMENT of Transportation, the historic Waterford Bridge some two miles northeast of Northfield is tagged as bridge number L3275. I suppose bridges, like roads, require such numerical identifiers.

 

This is truly an artful and unique bridge in southern Minnesota.

 

Much more than a name or number, this “140-foot, steel, riveted and bolted, Camelback through truss on concrete abutments” bridge, according to MnDOT, stands as an historic bridge spanning the Cannon River.

 

The new plain-looking bridge.

 

Rare in design here in Minnesota, the 1909 bridge closed to vehicle traffic in 2009 and was rehabilitated in 2014. A new, non-descript modern bridge replaced it.

 

Weeds, wildflowers and other plant growth surround the bridge.

 

I’ve long wanted to see the old bridge in Waterford Township as it reminds me of a similar truss bridge from my childhood. That bridge took US Highway 71/Minnesota State Highway 19 traffic across the Minnesota River near Morton. When my dad drove our family Chevy across the bridge en route to Minneapolis once a year to visit relatives, my siblings and I pounded on the interior roof to scare any trolls lurking underneath at water’s edge. That all seems silly now, reflecting as an adult. But, back then, it was great fun.

 

The narrow path to the bridge.

 

I stopped along the path to photograph a butterfly atop a thistle. I saw multiple butterflies.

 

Fast forward to today and my desire to see a similar-in-design bridge. Randy had actually driven across the Waterford Bridge at one time while doing some automotive repair work for a farmer in the area. So he easily found it. After parking, we set out to reach the bridge, weaving through a narrow pathway bordered by trees, thistles, goldenrod, wildflowers and other plants. Boulders blocked the deteriorating paved trail to motor vehicle traffic.

 

I hesitated, but only for a moment.

 

Upon reaching the bridge, I wondered if we should even venture onto it given the BRIDGE CLOSED—BRIDGE NOT SAFE NO TRESPASSING signage. But the deck looked safe…and many others had obviously been here before us.

 

In need of paint, or perhaps replacement.

 

The Waterford Bridge spans the Cannon River.

 

There’s lots of graffiti on the bridge.

 

Once on the bridge, I was surprised at its condition. Rusting metal. Flaking paint. Weathered boards. Graffiti. Vandalized signage. Cracked pavement.

 

Historical details on a sign posted high above the bridge deck.

 

As I walked, dodging dog poop, I considered the condition of the bridge built by the Hennepin Bridge Company with Dakota County Surveyor Charles A. Forbes leading the project design. His name and that of other government officials are listed on a plaque atop one end of the bridge which now appears abandoned to the elements. The bridge is also on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

Tubers exit the Cannon River near the new Waterford Bridge.

 

The new Waterford Bridge photographed from the old bridge with tubers in the distance at river’s edge.

 

A couple carries their kayaks along the narrow path leading to the historic Waterford Bridge.

 

Under that bridge, the Cannon River flows, muddy and brown, carrying tubers, canoeists and kayakers—we met two of them, saw others—to places eastward. We watched as one couple carried their kayaks along the narrow path to the bridge with plans to travel eight miles to Randolph, a journey they expected to take three hours.

 

The muddy Cannon River, a popular waterway for water sport enthusiasts.

 

It was a lovely summer day to be on the water. Or, like us, to walk across an historic bridge that, for me, bridges past to present via childhood memories.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling