The first bridge at this location was also called the High Bridge. Built for wagons in 1889, it was a Warren truss design, constructed of wrought iron and supported by huge limestone piers and tall iron towers. It was breathtakingly high and almost half a mile long and immediately became a city landmark.
That bridge carried Smith Avenue across the Mississippi for only 15 years before St. Paul’s historic storm, the Cyclone of 1904, caused half of it to collapse. The solid structure should have been strong enough to weather the wind, and engineers determined that it had failed because it was simply resting on its piers and held in place by gravity. The bridge was rebuilt, using steel, rather than iron, and lasted another 80 years.
It might have survived even longer if it had not been for the devastating collapse of a similarly constructed bridge in Ohio in 1967. The Silver Bridge fell during rush hour, when one of its pins failed due to a materials defect. The pin was non-redundant, which means that when it failed, the entire bridge failed.
The design of the rebuilt High Bridge also used pin-connected truss spans, and like the Silver Bridge, the pins were in a location where they could not be inspected. As a result, in 1984, MN-DOT Commissioner Richard Braun made the decision to close the High Bridge. It was imploded on February 25, 1985. Unpredictably, when the wreckage was examined, the connector pins were found to be in excellent condition.
Residents of West St. Paul mourned the loss of their old bridge and lobbied hard for a replacement. When the new plans were revealed, the design did not include sidewalks and was, according to many community members, too generic. Opposition to the bland concept eventually resulted in marked changes.
When the reconstructed High Bridge opened two years later, it was heralded as one of the seven engineering wonders of Minnesota. It is a magnificent structure, towering 160 feet above the river, making it the highest bridge in the city of Saint Paul. From the side, it is an airy design, with arches built of vertical steel girders. Stone walkways on either side of the two-lane roadway offer one of the most dramatic views of the Mississippi and downtown St. Paul. As you cross the Smith Avenue High Bridge, take note of the decorative railings, which were manufactured with iron salvaged from the earlier bridge.
Steel Girder with Inverted Arches
Two Lanes of Smith Avenue
A newspaper account from January 22, 1962, states that a car left the old High Bridge, landed upside down on a telephone line, sprung back up into the air, and landed upright with no passenger injuries.