The elegant bridge that carries Hennepin Avenue across the Mississippi at Nicollet Island is, in fact, the fourth to span the river in this location. Bridge fans consider the area around the bridge to be hallowed ground and steeped in history.
The Hennepin Avenue Bridge, officially called the Father Louis Hennepin Bridge, is named after the 17th century explorer who was the first European to discover St. Anthony Falls. As you drive across this beautiful bridge, with its graceful towers and soaring blue suspenders, it’s hard to imagine a time when you couldn’t easily cross the river. But for Native Americans and early settlers in the villages of Minneapolis and St. Anthony, it wasn’t easy to reach the other side. People could only cross by fording the river, or by lining up for miles for a hand-pulled ferryboat, and goods could only be carried north and south by ship.
The first bridge, a wooden suspension bridge, opened in 1855 and changed this dynamic forever. It was heralded as the first permanent span across the Mississippi, a link between the Atlantic and Pacific, and the “Gateway to the West.” It was a pure suspension bridge, with tall wooden towers, wire suspension cables, a stone base, and cast iron anchors. To cross, a horse and buggy cost a quarter; a pedestrian, a nickel; and sheep and pigs were two cents each.
The bridge suffered from maintenance problems and quickly deteriorated. Hennepin County purchased the bridge in 1869, and a second suspension bridge opened in 1876, but it also suffered from maintenance problems. The third bridge was completed in 1891, a steel arch structure that lasted nearly 100 years. By the 1980s, it was in need of repair, and while preservationists wanted to save it, officials determined that the river crossing needed to be six lanes.
The current Hennepin Avenue Bridge opened in 1990. Minneapolis City Hall wanted a signature structure that would reflect the history of the site and the importance of the river crossing. The resulting design was chosen as a salute to the first bridge. With its six lanes, broad pedestrian walkway, and ornate ironwork, the Hennepin Avenue Bridge is as effective as it is beautiful. Drivers crossing the bridge may not realize that it is, in fact, two suspension bridges built side by side. Interestingly, it is the shortest pure suspension bridge to carry highway traffic in the world today. It stands over the footings of the earlier bridges, which can be seen nearby, under the west end of the bridge.
Steel Suspension Bridge
Six Lanes of Hennepin Avenue
Pedestrians were charged a nickel to cross the first bridge built across the Mississippi on the site of the current Hennepin Avenue Bridge. Pigs cost two cents.