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Mississippi River Bridges, Minneapolis

The Stone Arch Bridge combines many of the different types of attractions that can result in the development of a good tourist bridge. If you enjoy historic bridges, it is old, having been constructed in 1883. It was also important in the historical development of the city of Minneapolis, providing a crucial link between the wheat fields of the upper Midwest and the rapidly growing population of bread-eaters in the eastern United States. If you appreciate the recent practice of converting abandoned bridges into pedestrian and bike trails that attract urban recreationists, then this is an excellent example. Rail traffic on the bridge stopped in 1978, but the bridge was renovated into an integral part of the downtown trail and park system in 1994. The bridge is also quite attractive. It is large, at more than 2,100 feet long, is gracefully curved and, constructed mostly of rectangular granite and limestone blocks in varying shades of light gray to tan and beige.

All of these are good reasons to visit the Stone Arch if you happen to be in Minneapolis. However, the striking feature of this bridge is its setting in the middle of an enormous complex of historic waterworks and river-centric industrial buildings in a way not found in any other city. The city of Minneapolis was settled at the location of St. Anthony’s Falls, which is a substantial waterfall on a large river, and thus provides an enormous amount of water power to be exploited. The result was not just a handful of small mills, but a large number of the biggest mills ever constructed anywhere, serving numerous different industries. These enormous mills, largely closed now and converted to condominiums, still line the top of the bluff on the western bank of the river. Also, the original mill races that fed water to them, as well as a complex of other water conveyance structures used to provide fresh water to residents and to carry away wastewater and stormwater from downtown, are preserved and visible at the base of the bluff in Mill Ruins Park, opened in 2001.

In addition to the mills, there was plenty of water power left over to construct the first central hydroelectric power plant in the United States, in 1882, on the eastern side of St. Anthony’s Falls. Another hydroelectric plant, at the Lower Dam a little bit downstream of St. Anthony’s Falls, was constructed in 1897, and rebuilt in the 1950s. Both of these plants are still in place, along with numerous transmission lines crossing the river.

Also, the section of the river between St. Paul and Minneapolis was extensively engineered with locks, dams, and weirs, culminating in the construction of the enormous St. Anthony’s Falls Upper Lock in 1963. The Upper Lock made the river navigable even above Minneapolis. The Upper Lock was closed to river traffic in 2015, due to declining use. The Corps of Engineers, which had operated the lock, transferred ownership to the National Park Service, which now operates the lock as a tourist attraction.

All of these different engineered features are found at almost a single spot in the river, are all visible upstream, downstream, and directly underneath the Stone Arch, and are all interesting, visitable tourist attractions on their own. There are walking paths and informative historical exhibition plaques all over the place. In addition, the annual Stone Arch Bridge Festival in Minneapolis attracts thousands of people every June for music on multiple stages, local foods, and arts and crafts.

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