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Prescott Bridge has spanned the St. Croix for 30 years

In terms of commanding the area, it could make a good choke point. Such was the determination made by Lieutenant Zebulon Pike when he camped at Prescott in 1805 on a journey upriver, per “A History of Prescott, Wisconsin: A River City and Farming Community on the St. Croix and Mississippi,” by Mary Cotter Beeler and Dorothy Eaton Ahlgren.

Nothing came of Lieutenant Pike’s long ago observations at modern Prescott—although he would go on to found Fort Snelling at a similar confluence of the Minnesota with the Mississippi— but don’t count the junction of the St. Croix and Mississippi out. It still forms a choke point on select occasions, whenever the gap beneath the present bridge isn’t sufficient to accommodate a passing boat. When that happens, the bridge lifts, and motorists on land are out of luck—maybe you’ve known the feeling at least once or twice.

It was September 28, 1990 when the current Prescott bascule bridge was inaugurated, making the end of the month its 30th anniversary of bridging the great divide, having replaced a prede-

Photo by Joseph Back. cessor much like the present aerial lift bridge at Duluth that had served to cross the St. Croix at Prescott from June 22, 1923 until then. The lift bridge itself had replaced an older ferry guided across by ropes—first hand, then gasoline—that served as an aid to get between Minnesota andWisconsin, no matter how hard the rivers tried to keep them apart (Beeler and Ahlgren, 150). Getting to the present from that long ago time hasn’t been easy, but a Prescott Journal newspaper supplement from BridgeFest ’90 to celebrate the opening of the present bridge gives some details.

“It’s been a safe job,” on-site project engineer Duane Davick of Lunda construction is quoted in an article write-up by Mark Gunderman. “We’ve had several minor injuries. We did have a fellow break a leg, but he only missed a day or two. He came back to work in a walking cast.” Davlin noted that bridge safety was a major concern, as some workers had been killed that summer in St. Paul when part of a bridge being constructed had collapsed. The new Prescott bridge had taken a year and a half to construct, with the first workers arriving in March 1989 and the dedication on September 28, 1990. The road to that day, however, had taken fourteen man-years to plan, as another article by Mark Gunderman related.

“What holds up a bridge?” Gunderman asked at the beginning of his piece, referencing piers, girders and trusses as possibilities. Then there was the dividing middle to consider.

“What lifts the bascular span on the bridge?” he asked. “The person in the control room? Four fifty horse motors/ Huge concrete counterweights that balance the weight?” Yes, Gunderman said, all the above played an essential part. But what kept the bridge from falling into the water had been done by the Chicago firm of Hazelet and Erdahl Inc, “one of the most respected and engineering firms in the nation,” and contracted by the state of Wisconsin to design a bridge for Prescott.

“Like everything else in life, it was done to cost,” Jeff Rouston said as a firm associate of the $12 million span. A study had determined that a bascule bridge “would be more efficient,” with Rouston saying that the Prescott bridge design “occupied most of the people in the company for a good solid year.” Among the reasons were state regulations and determinations. Meanwhile, the new bridge would need maintenance. The steel grid deck would need to be replaced after a time, and a regular painting would also be necessary. There were a lot of unknowns though.

“We basically go on the presumption that it’s going to have an indefinite life span,” Rouston told Gunderman, expecting that the new bridge (as of 1990) would last “at least as long” as the prior one, of 67 years’ service. So who built it? A Black River Falls firm, as the supplement noted.

“Lunda knows bridges,” the article by Brent Honcharenko announced, going into a company profile. “For over 50 years, the Lunda Construction Company of Black River Falls has been putting up bridges. How many bridges they’ve constructed or how many construction projects the Lunda company has been involved in is impossible to count without doing massive research. The company started small, from one man, and has grown to be one of the biggest bridge construction companies in the Midwest,” Honcharenko said. The one man was named Sam Swensen, who had come to central Wisconsin from Madison. Over time the name shifted to Nelson Construction, and then “Milt Lunda, Swensen’s nephew,” had become involved in the family business and had eventually taken it over, changing the name in the process. Although the Prescott bridge had cost a cool $12 million, the company wasn’t particular about the project, “as long as it’s a project they can do and do well,” Honcharenko related. The company had worked on bridges from $100,000 all the way up to $50 million.

Meanwhile, listed in supplement ads among the local or semilocal companies that contributed supplies to the project were Minnesota Rebar of Rosemount, Cemstone Ready-Mix Inc. of Hastings, River Falls, Maiden Rock, and Cannon Falls—(“we are very happy to have provided all the concrete for the entire bridge project”)—and Dick Schumacher Tile Co. Inc. of Appleton, which provided the tile and buried the time capsule associated with the project. The bridge once new is now 30 years old and in due time will need to be replaced—but for now it holds strong, even if it does choke up cross-border land traffic every now and then. After all, the river may no longer be the main highway, but boats do have to get through.

The old lift bridge crossing the St. Croix River. Below, a street-level view of the bridge.