NEW RICHMOND, Wis. — “As a child, you do not pay attention to the same facts and information that the adults do. But I knew that the people who lived in Wisconsin that needed to get to Stillwater, sometimes took a raft across the river because the old bridge had collapsed.”
That was 99-year-old Doris Erler sharing a memory about the swing bridge that used to cross the St. Croix River just days before the new St. Croix Crossing bridge opened in August 2017.
Because folks had to resort to using rafts to cross the river, there seemed to be a greater sense of urgency back then to replace the old swing bridge built in 1910 with a new Lift Bridge in 1931, a span of just 21 years between bridges.
The historic Lift Bridge engineered and constructed by J.A.L. Waddell and John Lyle Harrington remained the primary means of crossing the St. Croix River from Stillwater to Wisconsin until the construction of the St. Croix Crossing in 2017, a span of 86 years.
According to people on both sides of the river, a new bridge had been discussed for at least 50 of those 86 years.
Building the new bridge proved to be considerably more complicated than the Lift Bridge — just ask John Soderberg, clean water advocate, retired president of First National Community Bank in New Richmond and many would say, a founding father of St. Croix Crossing.
"I got sick and tired of hearing, 'You know, somebody ought to really get that bridge built over here.' I would say, 'What do you mean somebody? Maybe it's you that should do it.' Eventually I took my own advice," Soderberg said.
In 1968, Congress designated the upper portion of the St. Croix River as a National Scenic Riverway, one of eight protected under the national Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. In 1972 the Lower St. Croix National Scenic Riverway was added to the system creating a 230-mile-long national park uniting Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The roller coaster of a debate over building a new bridge had grown to legendary proportions over the preceding years headlined by political giants like former Vice President Walter Mondale, Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, and more recently, Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken.
That all changed with the formation of a 28-member coalition of stakeholders in 2003.
Turns out, two giants of a more local flavor, Soderberg and Houlton's Howard LaVenture, played significant roles in the battle to build the new bridge.
Both Soderberg and LaVenture were members of the federally mediated stakeholders coalition, which was responsible for forging the many compromises it took to make the new bridge a reality. You might characterize Soderberg as a civic minded superhero and LaVenture as more of a practical pit bull. The coalition did its work over a roughly three-year period between 2003 and 2006. However, both Soderberg and LaVenture had been advocating for a new bridge for many years before the 2003 coalition came into being.
Bridge project timeline
1996 - The Sierra Club filed the first of two lawsuits to stop plans to construct a bridge claiming it would harm the ecology of the river.
2001 - The Bush administration placed the bridge on a list of projects to undergo a “streamlined” environmental review process that began in 2003.
2003 - A 28-member, federally mediated stakeholder commission was formed.
2006 - After three years of monthly meetings amongst the 28 stakeholders and multiple compromises, they produced a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). That MOU allowed LaVenture, Soderberg and their colleagues to begin putting pressure on Congressional leaders to move the bridge project along.
One of the most important ideas to come out of the 2003 coalition was mitigation funds. The Department of Transportation allocated more than $40 million to be distributed up and down both shorelines. The funds would be used to resolve a variety of issues ranging from building a 4.7-mile bike and trail system called the St. Croix River Crossing Loop Trail and moving three different species of mussels out of danger to, keeping the bridge towers at or below the bluffs on the Wisconsin side and making the bridge an earth tone to help it blend in with the surrounding landscape.
2006 - In November, the National Park Service (NPS) signed off on the environmental impact study for the span, which cleared the way for Minnesota and Wisconsin officials to begin planning in earnest.
2007 - The Sierra Club filed the second of two lawsuits to stop plans to construct a bridge claiming the new design did not adequately address the same environmental issues that doomed the 1995 proposal and that the NPS was essentially contradicting its own findings.
“The St. Croix River Crossing Coalition took the cause to Washington, D.C. One by one, U.S. Senators and Representatives got on board to support the exemption from the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act,” said William Rubin, Executive Director, St. Croix Economic Development Corporation.
March 1, 2011 - Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) introduced legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to exempt the bridge from the laws governing the use of the river under the 1968 National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.
May 26, 2011 - Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) introduced similar legislation that authorizes the bridge project to the U.S. Senate.
Jan. 23, 2012 - The U.S. Senate approves the project.
March 1, 2012 - The U.S. House of Representatives approves the project.
March 14, 2012 - President Barack Obama signs legislation authorizing the bridge project.
May 28, 2013 - Project broke ground.
May 19, 2015 - First bridge segment put in position in the river. The bridge is made up of 650 segments.
September 2015 - Completion date is delayed from expected fall 2016 opening.
January 6, 2016 - New completion date is set for fall 2017 due to workforce shortages, equipment failures and weather issues.
May 2016 - Two large ringer cranes are brought in to help with construction on the project.
Aug. 3, 2016 - Final precast segment completed.
Feb. 10, 2017 - Final closure pour completed, connecting each pier location across the bridge. When they were put in place, the segments had a two-foot gap between them.
Aug. 2, 2017 - With a ribbon-cutting ceremony, the bridge finally opened
"It's a beautiful sight. It's got a pedestrian and bicycle walk way. I went out there, in fact, I almost broke down and cried because I was so happy with it. I stood there in the middle of the bridge and looked north up the river and watched the water coming down. It's the most beautiful scene I've ever had,” said Soderberg.