Back in Time: Stillwater’s first bridge

The wooden bridge in Stillwater caught fire in 1904. (Photo courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society)

BY BRENT PETERSON
GAZETTE COLUMNIST

The first river crossing at Stillwater the river was opened in 1876. It was a grand sight, and even though it was a toll bridge, people seemed to enjoy the convenience of going right across to the Wisconsin side. There was a pontoon section that would swing open and allow the rafts of logs and lumber go through. All seemed to be working well until Sunday Oct. 10, 1886.

On that date a cattle dealer named John Foster arrived in town during the morning with 98 horses and mules which he had driven overland from River Falls, heading to St. Paul. The animals were stopped on the approach span of the bridge on the Stillwater side at the request of the bridge master. There, about a dozen men were counting the horses and mules when suddenly, with a crash that was heard more than three blocks away, the span gave way and the animals and men dropped 20 feet into the water.

Thankfully all the men and all but three mules survived the crash. The Stillwater Gazette said: “An examination of the span which broke disclosed the fact that there was not a sound piece of timber below the platform. All were rotten, the rusty iron rods pulled through the spongy wood, and the worm-eaten supporting beams gave way at once. Many people who examined the span asked the question: ‘How in the name of common sense do you suppose it held up the heavy four-horse loads of lumber which have been passing over it so long?”

The bridge was quickly repaired and life went on as normal. But 11 years later the bridge again would collapse because of too many cattle on the spans.

On Friday, Sept. 10, 1897, a herd of 50 cattle were being driven across the bridge to the Wisconsin side. These cattle belonged to Isaac Staples and many of the cattle were coming from his Maple Island Farm and were going to pasture in Wisconsin. The span next to the pontoon on the Stillwater side started to creak and then gave way. About 30 cattle fell into the water, while others had crossed the span just before it collapsed.

A portion of the bridge that fell landed flat in the water creating a raft of sorts. Several of the animals were trapped on that; one cow landed on its feel on the lower platform without even getting wet. However, the vast majority of the animals that fell went directly into the water. They were unable to gain any footing and were swimming about in a terrified and helpless manner, snorting and bellowing with fear.

The Stillwater wooden bridge with a bend in it around 1920. (Photo courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society)

The Bronson & Folsom steamer, “Baby,” came quickly to rescue the animals and help clean up the debris. Again, the breaking of the principal cross-timber caused the accident. The break was caused by one end of the huge timber being rotten.

Another collapse of the wooden pontoon bridge happened on Sept. 15, 1904, when the wooden structure caught fire. After the fire department and spectators gathered on the burning bridge, it collapsed, sending firefighters and spectators into the water. This collapse caused the death of three people.

After the collapse in 1897 the newspaper said the incident had raised “considerable talk among the business men” in Stillwater about building a new bridge. Even one city council member remarked that the old bridge had “already caused the city more outlay than would have been necessary to put up a handsome steel one.”

The Stillwater’s iconic lift bridge was constructed in 1931 and served travelers for 86 years, much more reliably than her predecessor. The lift bridge closed to vehicle traffic Aug. 2, 2017.

Brent Peterson is the executive director of the Washington County Historical Society. Contact him at [email protected].