Nicollet Island sure has a lot of bridges. Two of them – the BNSF Railway Bridge (also known as the Nicollet Island Silver Railroad Bridge) and the Hennepin Avenue Bridge – traverse the island. Two others – the Merriam Street Bridge and the Boom Island-Nicollet Island Bridge – connect the island to the mainland.
These two “connectors” on the east channel of the Mississippi are just a half-mile apart and have some interesting history.
Merriam Street Bridge
This bridge, which takes you from Main Street across the east channel of the river and drops you off by the Nicollet Island Inn, is the oldest of the two bridges, built in 1887. Andrew Rinker was the city engineer back then. He was the king of Minneapolis infrastructure, overseeing street paving, and installation of the Minneapolis Water Works and sewers. In his obituary, he was described as having “had more to do with the development of municipal public utilities than any other man in the city.”
It was during Rinker’s tenure that the bridge was built. It was manufactured by the King Iron Bridge & Manufacturing Co. of Cleveland, Ohio, the largest highway bridgeworks in the U.S. in the 1880s. The company was started in 1858 by Zenas King. He started out manufacturing iron roofing and boilers, but soon came to specialize in bridges.
The Merriam Street Bridge is a steel truss through deck bridge. The fancy wrought iron fleur-de-lis at the top of each end were typical King bridge ornamentation. Bridges were not only useful, but decorative as well. The bridge was not built to cross the river at Merriam Street, however, but at Broadway.
The old Broadway Bridge was constructed with four 257-ft. trusses. When it was torn down in 1985 to make way for a new bridge, the best of the four truss sections was saved and floated downriver to Nicollet Island. Former Northeaster Publisher Kerry Ashmore was on hand to witness the action: “What might seem like a short trip downstream required a number of complicated maneuvers, and lasted from Tuesday till Saturday. An engineering accomplishment, to be sure.”
He went on to explain the move was funded by money that would have built a freeway – I-335 – across Boom Island through Northeast. Neighborhood opposition was so fierce, the project was abandoned after a 20-year fight, and the new Broadway Bridge was built with the freeway money instead.
According to John A. Weeks III, a bridge enthusiast, the Merriam Street Bridge is a wedding of the old and new. He writes on his website, “While the truss section dates from 1887, the piers and the approach spans for the Merriam Street Bridge are new construction. Due to concerns about the bridge structure, it was built on top of a set of steel girders. As a result, the truss no longer supports the main bridge span. Finally, the steel grate deck was removed and replaced with a concrete deck. Wooden walkways were built on the outside of the truss on each side of the bridge.”
He concludes, “The bridge has the appearance of a 100-year-old bridge, yet is built like a modern bridge. It looks very natural sitting at that location, like it was built to be there from the very start.”
Boom Island- Nicollet Island Bridge
Unlike the Merriam Street Bridge, the bridge that links Boom Island Park to Nicollet Island is in its original location. While the Merriam Street Bridge is suspended 14 feet above the river, the Boom Island-Nicollet Island Bridge sits a little lower – just eight feet above the water, although some sources say 12 feet.
It was built in 1901 for the Wisconsin Central Railroad by Butler-Ryan of St. Paul. Its designer was Charles F. Loweth, another Clevelander who lived for a time in St. Paul. He designed all kinds of things in connection to railroads, including the train depot in Edgerton, Minn. R.B. Tweedy was the railroad company’s chief engineer who oversaw the bridge’s construction.
Boom Island was an actual island at the turn of the 20th century, and it was in its heyday used as a landing area for logs floated downriver to Minneapolis’ many sawmills which churned out lumber for the growing city.
Fresh-cut lumber was stacked at the lower end of the island to dry.
The Wisconsin Central Railroad bought property on the lower end of the island to create a railyard, then set about to connect it to Nicollet Island. The 175-ft. bridge provided rail access to and from Boom Island and the Minneapolis milling district, another important railroad customer at the time.
The railroad bridge was a workhorse, meant to facilitate carrying loads of freight rather than vehicular traffic. It lacks the lattice work and detailing found on the Merriam Street Bridge.
Weeks writes, “The track that connected this yard to the rail network split off of the Great Northern Bridge [The Silver Railroad Bridge] over the east channel behind Nicollet Island. The branch line skirted along the northern edge of Nicollet Island, and then used this bridge to cross the Mississippi River east channel to reach Boom Island.
“The railroad operation on Boom Island was in high gear until after [World War II], where rail traffic in general started its downhill trend.”
The Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railroad merged with Wisconsin Central in 1961 and created the Soo Line. By the 1970s, the bridge was no longer in use.
Boom Island was nearly swallowed up in the aborted plan to build I-335. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) acquired it in 1982, with funds appropriated by the Minnesota legislature through the Metropolitan Council for $2.6 million. The tracks were taken up from the bridge and it was converted to a bicycle and pedestrian crossing.
MPRB gave the bridge a complete overhaul in 2018. The steel supports were strengthened. A new wood plank deck was installed, and a chain link fence was replaced with a safer new cable rail system on each side. Concrete abutment repairs were completed and the bridge was cleaned and repainted.
“Funeral of Former City Engineer to Be Held This Afternoon,” Minneapolis Tribune, March 19, 1918
“Boom Island Bridge (Bridge 93835),” dot.state.mn.us/historicbridges
“Merriam Bridge (Bridge 27664),” dot.state.mn.us/historicbridges
“King Iron Bridge & Manufacturing Co.,” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, Case Western Reserve University
“Items of Note in the News,” Northeaster, Sept. 10, 1986
“Minneapolis Parks Histories,” minneapolisparks.org
Barge moving a section of the old Broadway Bridge to Nicollet Island to become the Merriam St. Bridge in 1986. (photo from Hennepin County Library) Merriam Street Bridge plate. (Photo by Vince Brown) Boom Island-Nicollet Island Bridge plate. (Photo by Cynthia Sowden) The Wisconsin Central Railroad built a temporary bridge from Nicollet Island to Boom island in 1901, which was replaced later in the year. The writing across the photo says, “This channel has been narrowed from 15 to 20 feet by a dry wall built on the lower end of Boom I[slan]d in the year 1901, by the W.C. Ry. Co.” and refers to a photo taken Sept. 16, 1901. Writing next to the man on the left of the photo shows the direction of the river current. (Photo from MnDigital.org)