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Jay Cooke closed indefinitely

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THOMSON - Standing on the precipice of a massive washout along Minnesota Highway 210, and in front of the twisted remains of the landmark Swinging Bridge, state officials July 2 outlined early plans for repairing damage caused by last month's flooding at Jay Cooke State Park.

They spoke during the first official media tour of the park since heavy rain raised the St. Louis River to record levels and also caused an embankment of the Forbay Lake reservoir to fail, sparking a flash flood in the park. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said the park will remain closed indefinitely, and all camping and lodging reservations have been canceled through the end of October.

The flooding mangled the park's Swinging Bridge, severing the only in-park link between miles of trails on either side of the St. Louis River. While the bridge's columns still stand, the span is wrecked - and figuring out how to fix the bridge, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, is a priority.

"It's a historic bridge and we have to go through the State Historic Preservation Office to redesign the permanent structure when we do rebuild it, but there's a lot of questions around that," said Courtland Nelson, Minnesota DNR director of parks and trails. "Anything that was built in the 1930s, we don't have the materials on hand, we don't have the craftsmen. We'll have to do a lot of evaluation. ... First and foremost for us with regards to this bridge is do we do something temporary ... or do we want to seek some kind of permanent fix" right away.

Park manager Gary Hoeft said initial surveys of trail damage - including areas south of the river - were scheduled to be finished Tuesday. He said at least 20 other bridge structures in the park were wrecked. Flooding also cut off the park's water and sewer service.

"We've got a lot of culvert areas that have been washed out ... a lot of slumping, landslides from higher up on the hills that have slid down onto the trails," Hoeft said. "We found some sinkholes -- and a few of them don't appear to have bottoms."

The major washout east of park headquarters was caused when Forbay Lake broke through its embankment and drained to the St. Louis River, said Todd Campbell, a project manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Forbay Lake was a 30-acre impoundment that channeled part of the flow of the St. Louis River to Minnesota Power's Thomson Hydro Station. That washout is an estimated 200 to 300 feet across and at least 50 feet deep, Campbell said. Even above the washout, remaining trees had bark stripped from them by floodwaters.

"The volume of material that must have come down there in a matter of seconds is just mind-boggling," Campbell said.

Meanwhile, Jay Cooke's 18 park employees remain on the job, Hoeft said, assessing flood damage to trails and performing other maintenance.

"They're working harder than ever," Hoeft said. "Our people will probably be working all summer long replacing culverts and building bridges on our trails."

Jay Cooke State Park has 79 drive-in campsites, plus four backpack sites, three walk-in sites and five camper cabins. The DNR said full refunds will be issued to people who had camping and lodging reservations at the park through Oct. 31. As a result, the agency expects to lose about $175,000 in revenue. In 2010, Jay Cooke State Park hosted more than 302,000 visitors, nearly 35,000 of whom stayed overnight in the park.

Highway 210

Duane Hill, district engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation in Duluth, said flooding caused an estimated $35 million to $40 million in damage just to the 8.2-mile corridor of Highway 210 through the park, with four major washouts isolating the park and Minnesota Power facilities.

"We have a multidisciplinary team doing assessments on the four washouts that we have on this roadway, and we're going to be putting together a series of alternatives for rebuilding the road at those locations," he said. "Alternatives are going to range from culverts to bridges, and we're going to be looking at innovative methods to speed up the construction."

Those alternatives could include, at least temporarily, spanning the washouts with Bailey bridges - a pre-fab bridge that can be set up quickly, often used for military purposes. Hill said MnDOT also is looking at new kinds of bridge abutments and structures that balance cost-effectiveness, durability and speed of construction.

Hill said crews have opened a one-lane road to Minnesota Power's lower dam near Fond du Lac, and estimated that access to the park and other power facilities should be in place by early fall. Reopening of the full corridor - including bridging the massive gap east of park headquarters caused when the embankment of Forbay Lake gave way - may take at least a year.

Until then, Hill warned people against unauthorized ventures into the park, noting that parts of the highway are continuing to slump and give way two weeks after the flood.

"We really want the public to know they shouldn't be here; there's imminent failures on the slopes on the roadway," he said. "Please obey the road closed signs. ... Just be patient and we'll get this corridor back open to the public."

Willard Munger Trail

Early estimates for the cost of repairing the damaged Willard Munger State Trail between Carlton and Duluth range from $15 million to possibly as high as $40 million, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials said Tuesday.

The popular paved hiking and biking trail stretches 63 miles from Hinckley to Duluth; damage from heavy rain last month was centered on the first 15 miles out of Duluth, where about 15 "slumps," landslides and blown culverts have created gaps of up to 30 to 40 feet across. The trail is closed to the public in that area until further notice.

Martin Torgerson, area supervisor for the DNR's Division of Parks and Trails in Moose Lake, said it's hard to put a timeline on when repairs can be completed to the point of reopening the trail, which runs on a former railroad bed. But he said getting it into safe condition "by the time the snow flies" would be "wonderful."

"We want to get started on this project as soon as possible," he said along a damaged section of trail near the Buffalo House. "It's a vital link, it connects the communities here, it gets people outdoors, and it also helps the businesses along this corridor."

Complicating the damage estimates and the start of repair work, Torgerson said, is the fact that some of the slumps along the trail still are sinking. It wasn't so much flooding that damaged the trail, but rather soil, saturated by heavy rain, that started sloughing away from or onto the trail - a process that continues two weeks after the rain ended.

Once things stop moving, Torgerson said, crews will have to move a lot of earth to either rebuild - more solidly - the trail bed at its original height, or lower it to a wider, more stable base.

Forum Communications' Sam Cook contributed to this story.