In the early 1880s, the main depot in Minneapolis was the Minneapolis Union Depot. Being a union depot, it served more than one rail line. Each railroad had to figure out how to bring their trains into the depot. Other railroad had routes into downtown Minneapolis, such as the Milwaukee Road Short Line and the rival Northern Pacific, which had a bridge over the Mississippi near the university campus.
Great Northern trains would come up from Chicago along the east side of the Mississippi over Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy tracks. The trains would pass Daytons Bluff in Saint Paul, then pass through the Como Yards and into the Midway area. All that was needed was to find a way to connect the Midway area with downtown Minneapolis. The shortest route was a bridge over the Mississippi River near the east bank mills, and curving along the west river bank, ending up right at the entrance to the Union Depot.
The Stone Arch Bridge served rail passengers through high times and panics, through the boom times in the 1920s and the depression of the 1930s, and through two world wars. The star of the passenger service was the Empire Builder, whose timetable was adjusted so passengers could enjoy the scenery of the mountains through space age looking vista dome cars. But the railroad could not keep up with the automobile, and the passenger rail business became unprofitable. Amtrak was formed to take over passenger rail service on May 1, 1971. Amtrak continued to operate the Empire Builder over the Stone Arch Bridge. But on March 1, 1978, Amtrak opened the new depot on Cleveland Avenue in the Midway area between Saint Paul and Minneapolis. The last train crossed the Stone Arch Bridge on that day.
The Stone Arch Bridge sat unused through the 1980s and into the 1990s. A group of private and public organizations raised $2.5-million to refurbish the bridge for pedestrian traffic. The bridge reopened in 1994 after extensive repairs and the installation of a new deck and railings. Later, a decorative lighting systems was installed, and a decade later, lighting was installed under the bridge. The result is that this landmark structure is back in use, and it offers a spectacular view of the Saint Anthony Falls.
This bridge was a very popular location to view the aftermath of the I-35W bridge collapse in August, 2007. This bridge was the closest point for the viewing public during the first two weeks following the I-35W disaster. Police often closed the bridge during that time period when bodies were retrieved from the water to prevent people from taking photos of the recovery operation.
Two arches were removed in the 1960s to accommodate the construction of the lock and dam system that sits just upstream from the bridge. A steel truss was used to span the gap. This project reduced the number of arches from 23 down to 21. Since the bridge was an active rail line at that time, and Minneapolis was an important passenger hub, the bridge construction could not interrupt rail traffic. To accommodate this, the stone foundations where the bridge was to be cut were widened, and the steel truss was built outside of the stone. When the truss was ready, the stone arches were knocked out, and the rail lines were reinstalled on the truss section. Rail traffic was stopped for only 7 hours during the installation of the truss span.
A massive flood struck the Twin Cities area in 1965. Two piers of the Stone Arch Bridge were undercut in the raging water, and one side of the bridge began to sag. The bridge was repaired and returned back to service. Evidence of the event is still visible where some of the rows of stones have a small sag on the south face of the bridge near the east end.
The photo at the top of the page is a little seen view of the Stone Arch Bridge. It is taken from the east river bank near water level from an old observation deck in Father Hennepin Park. The view is looking west across the river towards downtown. Since we are looking into the sun, and the stone is in the shadow, it appears darker. If you look closely, you can see smooth concrete blocks that have been installed to fill in for stones that have broken and fallen out of the structure. Another unusual aspect of this view is that we only see the straight part of the bridge, whereas most views from the west side of the river include the sweeping curve near the west bank of the river.