Book note: New tome on Minnesota’s historic bridges


Over one year has passed since the collapse of the I-35W Bridge over the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. Before that, I didn’t think much about bridges. Sure, I might have noticed the body of water, a charging locomotive, or a gridlocked freeway as I passed over, but the bridge itself rarely captured my attention. Bridges are a part of our infrastructure that I took for granted.

Wood+Concrete+Stone+Steel—Minnesota’s Historic Bridges. A book by Denis P. Gardner, published by the University of Minnesota Press (2008). $39.95.

My disposition has changed since reading Denis P. Gardner’s Wood+Concrete+Stone+Steel—Minnesota’s Historic Bridges, the title of which refers to the four common materials used to construct bridges over the past two centuries in Minnesota. Gardner discusses the engineering science, typical designs, and common materials used to build bridges. Now, when I approach a bridge, I find myself thinking about the bridge’s structure, the material used to build it, and its purpose, wondering what story lies behind its construction.

Wood+Concrete+Stone+Steel is organized in sections according to the materials used. Gardner begins with wood, progresses to stone, then to iron and steel, and finally to concrete. Gardner’s account progresses in roughly chronological order.

Stone and wood are both plentiful. Stone tends to make for the most durable and enduring bridges, though it is considerably less convenient to work with than the other materials, requiring more manual labor and the skills of stone cutters and masons. Wood is relatively plentiful and easy to prepare for use, but not as enduring or as strong as the other materials. Steel and concrete can be constructed using machines, reducing labor costs, and are far more flexible and adaptable to exact specifications.

In addition to the materials used, Gardner goes into considerable detail discussing Minnesota’s historic bridges: their purpose and location, who built them, changes and modifications that were made to them, and, in many cases, why their use was discontinued and when some were destroyed. An example is the Arches, a double stone arch bridge that crosses Garvin Brook near Stockton, Minnesota. Constructed in 1882, it is a railway bridge for the Winona & St. Paul Railroad. Gardner writes, “The Arches blends harmoniously into a verdant landscape framed by limestone bluffs and outcroppings…Masons carved the stone into wedge-shaped blocks commonly known as voussoirs. Wedged together, the voussoirs formed the barrel of each arch.” Gardner laments that the Arches are marked for demolition. The value of preserving such historic and enduring bridges seems to have been lost in the drive to modernize the railway.

Some bridge histories include failure. Gardner writes, “[The I-35W Bridge’s] failure raises a serious question, namely, what should we do about our aging bridges? The obvious answer is to replace them, but perhaps a better solution is to replace the system that has allowed much of our bridge infrastructure to deteriorate to the place where so much needs replacing.”

Concerning the overall purpose of the book, Gardner writes, “[Bridge historians and preservationists] are practical people, realizing that it is not always necessary to build new if we can maintain the old. Moreover, we can continue to bask in the cultural heritage of the old—and that means something.”

Readers looking for an extended narrative, or a collage of riveting vignettes, may find Gardner’s book a tad fact-laden. Indeed, though Gardner clearly has high interest in and passion for his subject, Wood+Concrete+Stone+Steel reads much like a textbook. Nevertheless, the context in which Gardner provides information is interesting, and at times fascinating, making the book a great reference work or one for short readings in short bursts. The 225 photos and informative captions provide easily accessible facts and trivia and charming windows into Minnesota’s past, making this an excellent coffee table book.

Mark Weaver grew up in Fairborn, Ohio and then embarked on a life journey that has taken him across the U.S. and around the world. He has spent the last ten years teaching linguistics and English as a second language at colleges and universities in Texas, Minnesota, and California. Before that, he worked with a linguistics organization in Ethiopia. He is currently a freelance writer living in Minneapolis.