Iconic Stone Arch Bridge links past to present in Minneapolis

Above the rushing waters of the Mighty Mississippi, a testament to engineering and ingenuity stands tall.

"It's a great color and also has a gentler appearance than you would guess with how heavy it is. This curve at the back makes it really special," said amateur historian Vince Netz.

With its gleaming arches and golden hu, the Stone Arch Bridge has become a symbol of the city it calls home.

But underneath all the rock and mortar, there's a hidden history with more stories than there are stones on the beloved landmark.

"There's no reason to be here other than the waterfall and the railway. so the origin story for the city is on this bridge," said Netz.

In the late 1800s, Minneapolis was a roaring boom town, where the population had more than doubled in less than a decade. The city hired railroad baron James J Hill to build a giant train station to integrate what was then a mess of railway lines into one place. 

"It was bad for flour and lumber shipping. It was worse for passengers. They wanted to make the city's economic future better by building a railway station. To get there, they had to get across the river," said Netz.

At first, Hill wanted to build an iron bridge directly over nearby St Anthony Falls but his engineer told him that would destroy the falls. So they started construction just to the south in 1882, with 600 people working around the clock.

Five trains a day carried limestone, granite, and marble quarried in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin.

"The idea behind the stone is that it could hold a lot of weight and I think James J Hill, his ego was in it too. It's a big bridge. It's very much a testament to his power, to his wealth and to his capability. No one was denying James J Hill and his ability once this bridge was constructed," said MnDOT historian Katie Haun Schuring.

When the project was finished 22 months later, it was considered a modern marvel, with its 23 stone arches, S-shaped structure and six degree curve at the end creating a smooth and scenic path to bring passengers into the heart of Minneapolis.

At its peak, nearly 100 trains a day crossed the bridge and helped Hill expand his empire and conquer The West.

"It was considered a folly at the time. People didn't really think it was a great idea. Construction was very expensive, but time has told a different tale," said Haun Schuring.

The Stone Arch remained a railroad bridge until the late 1970s when it was abandoned, as the public began to use the interstate highway system for travel and commerce instead. It sat unused until the 90's when it was refurbished as a pedestrian and bike bridge with a new deck and decorative railings.

"In the 90s, there was this idea of rails to trails where abandoned rail lines would become trail systems. Here's this great resource in the middle of Minneapolis that is no longer being used as a rail line so what can we do with it? Turning it into a pedestrian bridge, a trail system made a lot of sense," said Haun Schuring.

Over the years, two arches were replaced by a steel truss for the lock and dam and two others are now supported by concrete because of a flood. But more work needs to be done, so the bridge is now closed to replace the mortar and some stones to preserve the bridge for the future.

"I think it is one of the most important and interesting bridges in the state. I think it tells the story of one man's rise to power and fortune. It tells the story of transportation use over time from railroads to trails. I think it is also one of those things that if it weren't there, there would be a big loss within the community," said Haun Schuring.

The Stone Arch is the only bridge of its kind on the Mississippi and the second oldest bridge on the river.

It is also on the National Register Of Historic Places, a vital link in the center of the city for more than a century.

"There are more bridges that have more technical complexity to them, but there is only one Stone Arch," said Netz.