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Free Bridge Edition from May 2, 1900 celebrates the end of tolls.

Margaret's Musings: My life with the 'bridge' has gone full circle

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It was a day for joy -- even giddiness. As one who is not abashed about bridges, I attended the Saturday morning event at the Water Street Inn in Stillwater, which brought together a large assortment of civic and political leaders. The air was filled with optimism and something we haven't experienced in a long time, especially in Wisconsin: decency and respect among Democrats and Republicans. Federal legislators from both states set aside differences and worked as a bipartisan team to pass, unanimously in the U.S. Senate and by more than a two/thirds majority in the House of Representatives, a bill moving ahead the construction of a new St. Croix River bridge.

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Not to be minimized is the impact of the St. Croix River Crossing Coalition which raised money, funded lobbying efforts and traveled to Washington, D.C., to personally ask senators and representatives from both Wisconsin and Minnesota to support the bill.

It seems after nearly sixty years of conflict and controversy the new St. Croix River bridge will be built.

It was a cloudy day in 1996 when I hopped on board a tow boat for a ride to the middle of the St. Croix River where a crew was taking core samples for the "new bridge" across the St. Croix. I had just finished an 18-month photo project documenting the accelerated construction of the new I-94 bridge in Hudson and the demolition of the 1952 "Blue Bridge." You might say bridge building is in my blood.

Growing up visiting construction sites, most of my life, I knew some of the basics. However, construction of a bridge brought together amazing elements which simply fascinated me. As a result, I started a minor collection of books about bridges.

I know my editor Doug Stohlberg feared I might start a second photo project as the construction of the "Stillwater" bridge was clearly imminent. Environmentalists with no concern for the investment already made by both states, on engineering, land acquisition and an extensive public input process eagerly put a halt to the process.

Since then, it has been a constant struggle with massive amounts of court time. So here we are sixteen years later, sixty years after the discussion began, nearing a resolution.

While all that giddiness was fun to observe, what was more fascinating was the old newspaper clippings brought to the event by Brent Peterson of the Washington County Historical Society. The headlines themselves belied the long, long history of, dare I say conflict, dating back to the first bridge to be built on the river.

In 1900 the Stillwater Gazette printed a special Free Bridge Edition, celebrating the fact that the bridge built in 1875 to cross the St. Croix River was paid for and they no longer needed to collect tolls. The cost due the city for the bridge was $57,582. The tolls easily paid for that as well as repairs and maintenance for the structure during the previous 25 years.

In 1929 the banner headline declares "Plans for bridge are changed again." Some of the headlines, even though they are up to 112 years old, remind us that crossing the St. Croix River has never been easy, particularly in Stillwater.

It was an honor to witness the true elation felt by many in attendance, include former Stillwater Mayor Jay Kimball, who declared upon entering the room "I have been working on this for 29 years and eight months."

It has a been a long, long haul for everyone concerned and yes, today, there are still naysayers which hold up the $700 million cost as a stumbling block.

One must hold the environmentalists responsible for this. If the bridge had been built as planned in 1996, when federal funding was secured the cost was estimated at $123 million.

As one, who uses the Stillwater lift bridge a lot, living only a couple of miles from it, I don't look forward to the nearly four month closure which is scheduled to begin in September and neither should Hudson.

The 1931-built eighty-one year old bridge needs repairs!

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