Jay Cooke Swinging Bridge looks to the past for new designJay Cooke Park is “right out the back door” of the home of Sue and Adrian Watt of Murto Road in Esko, and Adrian said the two of them walk in the park at least four days a week. It’s understandable, then, that they were elated at this week’s news that the park’s iconic Swinging Bridge will be rebuilt this summer. “We’re cross country skiers,”
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Jay Cooke Park is “right out the back door” of the home of Sue and Adrian Watt of Murto Road in Esko, and Adrian said the two of them walk in the park at least four days a week. It’s understandable, then, that they were elated at this week’s news that the park’s iconic Swinging Bridge will be rebuilt this summer.
“We’re cross country skiers,” he said, “and many of the park’s great hiking and skiing trails are on the other side of the bridge. There are bigger hills there, and it’s more fun!”
The Watts were among the first to witness the devastation of the bridge during the June 2012 flooding. They had decided to take a walk around 4 p.m. the afternoon of the flood to assess the storm damage. When they walked across Highway 210 and down near the headquarters of Jay Cooke Park, they couldn’t believe their eyes.
“Most of the Swinging Bridge was gone,” said Sue at the time. “It was gone.”
She said one of the first two stone pillars that supported the iconic bridge was completely washed away, as well as half of another one. Though several more were still standing, she said the decking was twisted and mangled.
Adrian added that as they stood there, they virtually witnessed the bridge being ripped apart before their very eyes.
“Though the rushing water was a big factor,” he said, “I think what took the bridge out more than anything were the trees being washed down the river. They looked like toothpicks being tossed around. From where we were standing, we couldn’t see a single rock along the shoreline, and the water was up over the bridge. As the trees got hooked on the bridge, their weight and force really did a number on it.”
Though much of the park was subsequently closed to visitors for much of the year, things are now looking forward in a big way.
A couple of weeks ago, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) announced that it will rebuild the bridge along Highway 210 accessing Oldenburg Point this summer and now, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is poised to begin work on the Swinging Bridge.
According to Park Manager Gary Hoeft, interested vendors have sent their bids for the project to the DNR Regional Headquarters in Grand Rapids, and a final decision is expected within a week’s time.
“The project is under some pretty rigid time constraints,” he said.
Hoeft said the hope is that the project will get under way in May, continue throughout the summer and be completed sometime in August or September.
“It will for sure be done in time for the fall color season,” he added.
When the bridge construction is under way, Hoeft said park visitors can expect a fair amount of activity in the vicinity of the bridge, which will be cordoned off to allow for storage of equipment and materials. He said construction cranes will be working from the side of the river nearest the park’s headquarters, though some smaller equipment will be brought in from the other side. He said all precautions will be taken to protect the integrity of the park’s natural environment, including avoiding scraping the large boulders along the river.
Hoeft said design plans are to go back to part of the bridge’s original look. He explained that when it was first built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934, the handrails of the ramp leading up to the bridge were made of round wooden logs.
In 1950, the Swinging Bridge was destroyed in what has since become the second largest flood on record (following the 2012 flood). It was recorded at 42,000 cubic feet per second (compared to at 55,000 cubic feet per second in the 2012 flooding). The bridge’s smaller pillars were knocked down, the decking destroyed, and one of the main pillars was reported to have toppled. Subsequent reconstruction included replacement of the log ramp with metal railings and chain link fencing.
“Now, we’re going backwards in time and using wooden logs once again,” Hoeft said, explaining that the stone columns that survived last summer’s flood will continue to anchor the bridge.
The state is paying for the project through bonding money but will be reimbursed from federal disaster aid, said Cheri Zeppelin, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman.
And while it will be a busy construction season at the park this summer, he said the end result will be welcomed by the many visitors who once utilized the park on a regular basis.
“This is one of the busiest ski parks in the system,” said Hoeft. “This past winter, however, we had fewer than normal skiers because our trail system was basically cut in half after the bridge went out, even though we had good snow and good trail reports.”
He said most visitors to the park were aware ahead of time that access to the far side of the river, as well as through access along Highway 210, were prohibited.
“We did have a few semis show up who didn’t realize the road was closed,” he said, adding that it proved to be something of a major endeavor for them to turn their rigs around and reconsider their routes.
Hoeft said other construction in the park this summer will include replacement of the bridges over Otter and Silver creeks, the restoration of Minnesota Power’s Forbay Lake reservoir/power generating system and minor repairs to various other structures.
MnDOT has not yet decided whether to ever rebuild the road all the way through the park to state Highway 23 in Duluth’s Fond du Lac neighborhood. State officials plan to seek public input later this year on that decision.
The DNR doesn’t have an official position on that question, Hoeft said. “It’d be a lot different than it’s ever been” if the highway ended in the park, he said.
In the meantime, the Watts say they plan to continue their weekly forays into the park to enjoy its natural environment.
“We like to see what’s going on over there,” said Adrian. “While walking my dogs one day, I saw brush wolf tracks, bear tracks and timber wolf tracks.”
He added that he hopes many others will soon be able to fully enjoy the park once again as well.
“You never realize just how many people use that area — until they no longer can,” he said.
John Lundy of Forum Communications contributed to this story.