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


Pass the salt, please, or not February 20, 2020

Interstate 90 in Wisconsin is noticeably white from road salt. It was like this all the way from La Crosse to Madison last weekend.


WHEN YOU’RE ON THE INTERSTATE for nearly four hours, you start to notice things. Like the semi drivers seemingly nodding behind the wheel as their rigs hit the rumble strip or drift toward your lane. Or the guy driving with his window open on a cold February afternoon because maybe, just maybe, he’s trying to stay awake. Or the driver who can’t wait even a second as he tailgates, then swoops around on the right before cutting in front of you.

All of this happened on a recent trip to and from Madison, Wisconsin, along Interstate 90. In addition to the questionable, and often frightening behavior (especially by four professional truck drivers), I noticed something else—a heavily-salted interstate. I-90 in Wisconsin stretched before Randy and me like ribbons of white.


There was much less salt, if any, on I-90 in southeastern Minnesota.


By contrast, I-90 in Minnesota appeared mostly clear of road salt. Why the difference in bordering states? I don’t know the stance Wisconsin takes on salting to cut snow and ice. But I do know that the Minnesota Department of Transportation is shifting toward a more conservative use of salt due to concerns about salt entering our waterways. We are, after all, The Land of 10,000 Lakes.


This sign along I-90 welcomes travelers to Minnesota along the Mississippi River by La Crosse, Wisconsin.


In media reports I’ve heard and read, MnDOT is taking a technological and scientific approach to treating roads in an effort to reduce salt usage. That includes pre-treating roads before storms (which uses less salt), relying on calibrations, factoring in temperature and other data to determine how roadways should be treated. It’s no longer simply a load up the trucks with salt and sand and chemicals and get out there mindset.

I appreciate this respect for our natural resources, this shift in thinking. Just remind me of that the next time I complain of icy roads or sidewalks. Or the next time Randy and I throw salt down on our icy driveway or sidewalk.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Thoughts on mass transit in Minnesota: memories & more January 15, 2015

MY EAST COAST COLLEGE son enthuses about mass transit, specifically about the T in Boston. It’s his go-to form of transportation if he’s not walking or unicycling.

The lack of wide-spread mass transit in Minnesota frustrates him. As I see it, cars, cost, lower population, and a much larger geographical area all factor into less public transportation availability here than out East.

I’ve reminded him that many a compact East Coast state would fit inside Minnesota’s borders. We don’t have nearly as many people living here as there.

The light rail heads toward the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

The light rail heads toward the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

To be fair, mass transit exists in Minnesota’s larger communities and cities with bus service and, in the Twin Cities metro, light rail. And even in rural areas, limited bus service is available in some counties.

Decades ago, when I visited my Aunt Rae and Uncle Bob each summer, riding the Greyhound bus solo from my Uncle Harold’s gas station along Highway 19 in Vesta in southwestern Minnesota all the way to downtown Minneapolis, I experienced big city mass transit.

An excited nervousness jittered through me as Rae and I boarded a Minneapolis city bus to wherever she wanted to take me. To the Munsingwear warehouse to sort through piles of fabric. Or maybe downtown to view an art exhibit. Specific destination details mostly elude me now all these decades later.

But the wonderment of wheeling along narrow city streets, the bus pulsating to a stop, door swishing open, passengers boarding, remains with me. To be young and in the big city hustle far from corn and soybean fields and bellowing cows opened my eyes.

I saw beyond rural. I saw the possibilities. Another life. Another world.

Not that I ever fell in love with the big city. But riding the bus through Minneapolis sparked something inside me. A yearning for art galleries and music and museums and architecture. A library. An appreciation for people who didn’t look like the German Lutherans and Catholics back home. An almost dizzying awareness of noise and lights and motion. And tall buildings.

Vehicle traffic and light rail meet at this oddly configured intersection near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Vehicle traffic and light rail meet at this oddly configured and confusing intersection near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

I wonder if, today, a young girl from outstate Minnesota boards the Metro Blue Line (light rail) with her parents, perhaps headed to Target Field for a Twins game or to the Mall of America, and feels the same thrill I experienced decades ago riding the bus through the streets of Minneapolis.

Does she imagine the possibilities, study the faces, note the traffic, delight in her destination, desire to explore more of the city? Or is she overwhelmed by it all, wishing only to leave?

FYI: The Minnesota Department of Transportation has a statewide rail plan for an inter-city passenger rail line running from the metro to my community of Faribault and perhaps farther south. This proposal is in the early discussion stages. Click here to learn more.

Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Hope for one of Minnesota’s most dangerous rural highways March 29, 2013

IF YOU EVER HAVE traveled U.S. Highway 14 west of North Mankato, you will understand why I am thrilled that something is finally being done to improve a small stretch—the 10 miles between North Mankato and Nicollet—of this deadly roadway.

Heavy traffic on U.S. Highway 14 between Nicollet and North Mankato late last Sunday afternoon.

Heavy traffic on U.S. Highway 14 between Nicollet and North Mankato late last Sunday afternoon.

Based on my more than 30 years of traveling Highway 14, I can unequivocally tell you that this rural roadway rates as dangerous. Think narrow lanes, heavy traffic, speeding, few opportunities to pass safely and too many drivers passing when they shouldn’t be.

Read this revealing information from the Minnesota Department of Transportation:

The U.S. Highway 14 corridor between New Ulm and North Mankato in Nicollet County recorded 250 crashes from 2006 to 2010. This overall crash rate is consistent with comparable rural state highways. However, 11 of those crashes had either a fatality or a serious injury, leaving this portion of Hwy 14 with a fatal and serious injury crash rate 50 percent greater than comparable rural state highways. Safety in the area from North Mankato to Nicollet and at the intersection of Hwy 14 and Hwy 15 north of New Ulm is of particular concern.

Did you catch that statistic? A fatal and serious injury crash rate 50 percent greater than comparable rural state highways. Impressive and scary, huh?

You'll see lots of semis traveling this stretch of rural Minnesota highway.

You’ll see lots of semis traveling this stretch of rural Minnesota highway. This recently-installed buffer strip now runs all the way between North Mankato and Nicollet.

In recent years, when traveling to southwestern Minnesota to visit family, my husband and I often have taken the “back way” to Nicollet from Faribault, passing through towns like Le Center, Cleveland and St. Peter, to avoid that horrible 10-mile stretch of Highway 14 from North Mankato. We’ve checked mileage and travel time and found both routes to be nearly identical.

Entering the construction zone, westbound on Highway 14 in North Mankato.

Entering the construction zone, westbound on Highway 14 in North Mankato.

But many times we still take Highway 14 between North Mankato and Nicollet. Now it’s a bit safer with a buffer, traffic sticks (to prevent passing) and rumble strips recently added between lanes. Those changes marked the first stage of efforts to make this area of roadway safer.

We were driving eastbound in this Highway 14 construction area in North Mankato when I snapped this photo.

We were driving eastbound in this Highway 14 construction area in North Mankato when I snapped this photo.

Sometime in 2017 or 2018, construction is expected to begin on a project which will extend the four-lane all the way from North Mankato to Nicollet. Finally.

That still leaves about 15 miles of dangerous Highway 14 travel between Nicollet and New Ulm.

Ten miles are a start in saving lives along this notorious rural roadway. But I, personally, will not be satisfied until the entire 25-mile stretch between North Mankato and New Ulm becomes a four-lane.

Highway 14 slices through agricultural land, as seen in this photo taken between Nicollet and Courtland.

Highway 14 slices through agricultural land, as seen in this photo taken between Nicollet and Courtland.

IF YOU’VE EVER driven Highway 14 between North Mankato and New Ulm, I’d like to hear your stories and thoughts about travel there.

To see the entire listing of 2013 MnDOT road construction projects slated for Greater Minnesota, click here.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


U of M study on teen texting and driving targets rural Minnesota February 25, 2013

WE’VE ALL HEARD the warnings about texting and driving. You’ve likely even spotted someone texting and driving. I haven’t.

Interstate 94 sometimes seems to run right into the sky as you drive west.

Interstate 94 in western Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

But a brother-in-law, who is a trucker, recently shared a story about watching a young woman lose control of her car along Interstate 94 in western Minnesota while texting. Somehow she managed to keep her car on the road and avoid a crash. My brother-in-law claims the incident happened so fast that the driver never took her eyes off her cell phone.

Stories like that scare me.

Now researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Institute are undertaking a study of young drivers and texting practices in 18 Minnesota communities, most of them rural and Faribault among them.

I first learned of the study in a news brief published in the Faribault Daily News soliciting 20 newly-licensed 16-year-olds from the Faribault area to participate in the year-long study. Intrigued, I contacted Nichole L. Morris, a research associate in the U of M’s HumanFIRST program in the ITS Institute. She is working on this project, funded by the ITS Institute and the Minnesota Department of Transportation, along with a team of researchers.

My phone, not a smart phone, but with an important message.

My phone, not a smart phone, but with an important message.

The 300 teens selected for the study will be equipped with smartphones to collect and transmit driving data in real-time for their first full year of independent driving. Researchers will collect data until May 2104 with group data reported to MnDOT and then made public in early 2015.

“These results will hopefully shed light on what areas are most problematic for teen drivers, what can be done with our technology to improve the safety of teen drivers and what changes, if any, should be implemented to our teen driver laws to prevent more teen driving fatalities,” Morris says.

Eighty percent of teen fatal crashes occur in rural areas, Morris says, explaining why the project is targeting 18 mostly rural Minnesota communities. Faribault was selected for the study because of its population and low commuting rate. She declined to name the other 17 communities or any hypotheses to avoid adding bias to the study.

But, says Morris, “My hope is that we find some key answers to reduce crash and fatalities for teen drivers in Minnesota and nationwide. This is such an important issue because traffic crashes are the leading cause of fatalities for teens. The rate at which we lose our sons and daughters on the road is unacceptable and it is a charge to all citizens to help to become the solution to this problem.”

The passion Morris, who holds a Ph.D. in Human Factors Psychology, possesses for this project is palpable. “It is an exciting opportunity for parents and teens to be a part of the solution to end teen traffic fatalities.”

Eighteen communities in rural Minnesota are included in the teen texting and driving study.

The study is targeting rural Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

As of Friday morning, 216 Minnesota teens from the selected communities had been recruited for the study. About 10 more are needed from the Faribault area.

To apply, a teen must be 16 years of age, currently have a driver’s permit, receive provisional licensure between now and April 30, start the study within a month of getting licensed, drive at least 2-4 times a week, have no physical limitations that prevent driving and have parental permission.

Qualifying teens should contact Morris via phone at 612-624-4614 or email at nlmorris@umn.edu

Besides offering teens an opportunity to help find solutions to teen traffic fatalities, the project is also paying a $25 monthly incentive ($300 to be paid at the end of the year-long study) and providing smartphones with free monthly data, text and talk plans for a year.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling