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Hennepin Avenue Bridges

Current Hennepin Avenue Suspension Bridge (1990-present)

Bridge type: steel suspension bridge

Planning for the current Hennepin Avenue bridge, the fourth bridge at this location, began around 1980, coinciding with a period of renewed interest in the Minneapolis riverfront and its revitalization. Since Hennepin Avenue is a County State Aid Highway, replacement of the bridge fell to Hennepin County, which recognized that the project presented a major design opportunity and a chance to recapture the magic of the earlier suspension bridges at the site. The current 1,037-foot-long steel suspension bridge, designed by the engineering firm of Howard, Needles, Tammen, and Bergendoff, carries six lanes of vehicular traffic, along with pedestrians and bicycles. Accent lighting along the suspension cables create a striking effect at night.


Previous bridges at this location

First Hennepin Avenue Suspension Bridge (1854/55 - 1876)

Bridge type: wood tower suspension bridge

The first permanent bridge to span the Mississippi at any point along its length was built not by a governmental entity but by a group of speculators who saw an opportunity to link the fledgling cross-river towns of St. Anthony and Minneapolis and thus increase the value of their land holdings and waterpower rights. In 1852, before either town had been officially incorporated, these speculators, led by Franklin Steele, formed the Mississippi Bridge Company and hired engineer Thomas Griffith to design the proposed Hennepin Avenue bridge. Griffith was fresh from helping to build a major suspension bridge across Niagara Falls, completed in 1850. The site chosen for the bridge, just above St. Anthony Falls, had long been a traditional crossing point. Native Americans had forded the river here, and, in the early settlement days, Steele ran a private ferry service at this location.

Two views of the first suspension bridge, looking toward Nicollet Island, 1868
Construction was completed by late 1854, and the bridge was opened on January 23, 1855 in a gala celebration featuring a mile-long procession with 61 sleighs. Minnesota Territorial Governor Willis A. Gorman described it as “a wonderful enterprize” and shared his vision that “this mighty structure may yet bear … the commerce of the Pacific, as it mingles with that of the Atlantic!” This “Gateway to the West” was 620 feet long and 17 feet wide, with wire suspension cables running over wood-shingled towers on stone bases and anchored by cast iron moorings placed below the limestone bedrock.
  These anchors were the first large iron castings made in Minnesota. The stone bases of the towers on the west side of the river were excavated and stabilized in 2001-2002 by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and are now visible as part of First Bridge Park. A resident who attended the opening celebration reported that the cost of the bridge was $36,000.

As the property of a private corporation, the facility was operated as a private toll bridge until purchased by Hennepin County in 1869. The toll was five cents for pedestrians, twenty-five cents for horse-drawn wagons, and two cents for “swine

Second suspension bridge (at left) under construction with first bridge (at right) still in use, 1876
or sheep.” Despite the hyperbolic sentiments expressed at the opening of the bridge, its condition quickly deteriorated to the point where replacement was needed. The new bridge was built directly adjacent to the old, so, for a brief period during construction, both bridges coexisted. The old bridge was demolished in 1876 when the new bridge was complete.

It should be noted that the Hennepin Avenue suspension bridge has some competition to the title of “first bridge to span the Mississippi.” At Rock Island, Illinois, a railroad bridge opened in April 1856 was the first bridge to cross the Mississippi in a single span. Unfortunately, just two weeks after it was opened, a steamboat ran into
the bridge and burst into flames. The new bridge was destroyed, although it was subsequently rebuilt.

View more photos of the 1855 suspension bridge

Second Hennepin Avenue Suspension Bridge (1876 - 1890)

Bridge type: stone tower suspension bridge

Second Hennepin Avenue bridge, looking toward Nicollet Island, 1886 

Commerce along the riverfront, including the milling industry, was booming by the mid-1870s. The first Hennepin Avenue bridge had deteriorated in condition and was also undersized to carry the increased cross-river traffic. Once again, engineer Thomas Griffith was engaged to build a new, larger bridge. Since the river crossing at this location was important, the old bridge was kept in use during the construction of the new, and photographs exist showing the two side-by-side. The new bridge, opened in 1876, was 675 feet long and 32 feet wide, with taller, sturdier stone towers replacing the earlier bridge’s wood towers. The stone bases of these towers are also visible at First Bridge Park, just northwest of the footings of the first bridge. As with the first bridge, large cast iron anchors buried beneath the limestone held the bridge cables under tension. Two of these iron cable anchors have been placed for public viewing in First Bridge Park.

Unfortunately, Thomas Griffith’s Minneapolis bridges tended to be short-lived. By 1890, the second bridge was in deteriorated condition and required replacement.  

Remnants of the cable anchors on display
at First Bridge Park
View more images of the 1876 bridge 

Hennepin Avenue Steel Arch Bridge (1891 - 1988/89)

Bridge type: steel arch bridge

Steel arch and second suspension bridges, 1891
Construction of a new bridge to replace the second suspension bridge began in 1888 and was completed in 1891. As with the previous bridge replacement, the two bridges coexisted for a brief period until the steel arch bridge was open for use. Unlike the first two bridges, this more prosaic design, by Minneapolis city engineers Andrew Rinker and Frederick W. Cappelen, spanned the river in two steel arches, each 580 feet long. The bridge deck, originally wood, supported a 56-foot-wide roadway and two 12-foot-wide sidewalks, arches, each 580 feet long. The wooden deck was replaced with an open-grid steel deck in 1954.

Hennepin Avenue steel arch bridge viewed from Nicollet Island looking toward east bank, ca. 1903
This highly functional bridge lasted for nearly a century, until it was demolished in 1988-89 for construction of the present bridge. Portions of its sandstone abutments have been incorporated into the new bridge, and other portions are visible along the riveredge at First Bridge Park. The footings of the pier which supported the mid-river touchdown of the arches also remain.

View more images of the 1891 bridge

Hennepin Avenue East Channel Bridges
(1853 - 1869/1869 - 1878/1878 - 1973/1973 - present)

Bridge types, in chronological order: wood beam span supported by pilings; wood truss bridge; stone arch bridge; steel beam bridges

Even before the first Hennepin Avenue suspension bridge spanned the main river channel, smaller bridges had been built to connect Nicollet Island to the east bank of the river. The early settler and entrepreneur Franklin Steele staked a claim on the east side of the river near the Falls in July 1838, anticipating that the area would soon be opened by the government for acquisition by private landowners. In 1847, his crews built a dam
Nicollet Island, viewed from the east bank,
with first connecting bridge at far right, 1857
across the channels from the east bank to Hennepin Island and then to Nicollet Island. This dam powered a sawmill he had built at the north end of Hennepin Island. The dam served another

Nicollet Island, viewed from
the east bank, with second
connecting bridge, ca. 1870

Third east channel bridge, looking upriver with
Nicollet Island at left, ca. 1880
useful purpose, though, in acting as a sort of bridge to bring pedestrians half-way across the river from the east bank. From that point, Steele operated a rope-drawn ferry service to carry passengers to the west bank. In 1853, he built a rough wooden beam span bridge from the east bank to the downstream end of Nicollet Island at Bay Street (now East Hennepin Avenue).

This was replaced in 1869 with a wooden through-truss bridge supported by three masonry piers, which, in turn, was demolished in 1878 for a new five-arch stone arch bridge. The stone arch bridge lasted for nearly a century; only in 1973 was it replaced with a pair of steel beam bridges, each carrying one-way traffic. These bridges are still in place, connecting the Hennepin Avenue bridge to East Hennepin and First avenues on the east bank. They were repainted in 1990 to match the newly-constructed suspension bridge.

  East channel bridge, 2005