Bridges of Ramsey County – The Marshall/Lake Bridge

I am a fourth-rate bar-band and karaoke singer. But I admire great singers, from Pavarotti to Allison Krause. I can’t do what they do (especially Krause, since I’m, like, a guy), but that doesn’t stop me from admiring it.

I’m a decent but not specacular guitar player. But I can watch a great guitarist – Richard Thompson, Steve Vai, Mark Knopfler, Eddie Van Halen, Chet Atkins – and be awestruck. I can’t play much of anything they do – my greatest achievement, so far, on the instrument is a pretty ham-fisted “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” – but I most definitely can admire what they do.

Now, I stank at math – I eked out a “C” as a Christimas gift in college pre-calc. And all of my artistic talent is either musical or literary; I am a less capable visual artist than anyone I know except perhaps Ken “Avidor” Weiner.

And it’s the area where math – science, really, and especially applied science in the form of “engineering” – meets applied art in the form of “architecture”, that’s been fascinating me lately.

I’m the only non-visual-artist in my family; my mom, my father’s parents, my brother and sister, and both of my kids are very talented at sketching, sculpture, painting, photography, what have you. It fascinates me. I admire it. I can’t even do it.

And while working at an awful temp job as a document coder at a “Litigation Support” company, I worked on a big lawuit involving a nuclear power plant. In reading and coding thousands of pages from among seven semi-trailers full of paperwork – four months of marinading my brain in the detritus of a huge engineering project – I got fascinated with the science and technique of making things that are physically improbable exist.

And for a while now it’s been bridges – the science and technique of moving people through the air over rivers, gorges, roads, and other things that are otherwise impassible, and the art of turning them into statements about the people who demanded, paid for, designed and built them – that’s fascinated me most. And that was even before the bridge collapsed.

So I’m going to drink a little of the Lileks Koolaid, and spend a couple of days writing about the bridges of Saint Paul, and what I think they have to say about their time and city.

Don’t like it? Scroll on.


We’ll start upstream, at Saint Paul’s first bridge, the span connecting Marshall Avenue with Lake Street in Minneapolis.

It’s the new bridge, of course – it’s been in place for about fifteen years, and came at a fairly awkward time in bridge development, when architects were just starting to come out of the nightmare of the Interstate System years – when bridges were supposed to be simple, unobtrusive, functional, almost not exist from the traveller’s point of view. And, indeed, if you don’t look out your side window you might not notice you’re crossing one of America’s great rivers, but for the fact that the paving is a whole lot nicer than on either Marshall or Lake.

It replaced the classic old Marshall/Lake Bridge, the one that still stood when I moved to the Twin Cities and, occasionally, used it to get to my first decent job:


Crossing the old Marshall/Lake bridge, you most assuredly did know you were suspended in the air high over a major river, trusting to the science and workmanship of engineers and ironworkers who had probably all died off by the time i was born. Biking up River Road (east or west), it was fascinating to look at that spider web of girders, transferring all of that weight to…

…that little, sunken man-made island in the middle of the river.

From this excellent guide to historic bridges:

Claim to fame: the old Lake Street-Marshall Avenue Bridge was one of the busiest two lane bridges in the US. The new bridge has the longest clear span of any bridge in St. Paul at 550 feet.

The Lake Street Bridge connects Lake Street in Minneapolis to Marshall Avenue in St. Paul. This was once a key river crossing in that it carried US-212, the main road between the twin cities. Even though I-94 is now the main highway connection between the two cities, the Lake Street Bridge still sees a large amount of traffic.
And it’s fun – twenty years later – to note how misplaced any concerns about the old guys’ engineering and workmanship may have been at the time:

The old Lake Street bridge needed to be replaced because it was obsolete…after the new bridge was completed, the old bridge needed to be removed. Crews set up explosives. After pushing the button, and the dust cleared off, the old bridge was still standing. It took a second effort with more explosives to bring the old bridge down a few weeks later.

I still miss that old bridge.

Next time – the Ford Bridge.

MARGE:  “What did I tell you, Vern?”

VERN: “You’re right.  He really isn’t another Lileks…”

MARGE: “And…?

VERN: “I’ll never doubt you again”.

4 thoughts on “Bridges of Ramsey County – The Marshall/Lake Bridge

  1. After that, the Smith Avenue High Bridge, please. There’s a great spot to get a wide-angle photo of it looking West, right across Shepard Road from the Science Museum, on the banks of the river.


  2. Mitch, You should read David McCullough’s book on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. It is a great account of both the engineering and the politics of building the bridge.

  3. Sisyphus,

    I did! I loved that book, for both the political AND technical backstories.


    I’m working my way downstream.

  4. John Weeks did a great job with his bridge site. His pictures were used in the NYT after the 35W collapse, and he was properly cited, as far as I could tell.

    I teach an elementary science class about bridges, and I had been thinking about taking photos of the major bridges in town. I was real happy to see that someone else had already done it.

    I grew up riding across the big bridges of the lower Delaware River. The Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Commodore Barry, Betsy Ross, and Deleware Memorial bridges set the standard in my mind. The bridges around here, well, I’ve had to accept that they are not the thrilling bridges of my youth.

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