With the announcement that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has finally acquired the old Minnesota Zephyr railway line near Stillwater, the popular Gateway State Trail will finally connect to downtown Stillwater. And not only will it be connected, but I would wager that the six new miles of trail will be some of the finest biking and walking in the state.
I’ve been fortunate to walk along those railroad tracks many times. When I was a kid, we’d ride our bikes a mile out Highway 5 to the bridge over Brown’s Creek and then scramble down to the creek and watch trout swim while we played on the limestone rocks along the water. Later, the tracks were a place to wander during high school afternoons. I camped on a friend’s property along the creek often during high school, and still remember quietly walking along the tracks with a few others at dawn, balancing on the rails while the world grew gray in the early part of a summer day.
I digress. It’s a beautiful little canyon, is all I’m trying to say. The ride into Stillwater should be a wonderful, easy gentle downhill, because it slowly but steadily descends toward the St. Croix River from the uplands west of town. I can imagine hardly moving the pedals for much of those six miles.
This wise use of taxpayer money could only be improved one way: by the state somehow including preservation of the old Stone Bridge in their trail plans. The bridge, built in the 1860s as part of the Point Douglas-Superior Military Road and used by Minnesota troops heading off to the Civil War, is just steps away from the rail line the DNR acquired, and would be located about halfway down the new stretch of trail.
As the oldest standing bridge in Minnesota, the structure is a part of our state’s history. My elementary school was even named after it. It’s privately owned and in need of both serious restoration and maintenance efforts, and broader accessibility to the public. It deserves to be cared for by all of us, and it would be a perfect wayside stop along the new Brown’s Creek Trail. I can already see the bench (maybe even a picnic table!) and the historical marker. While the slight downhill heading into Stillwater will be nice, riders heading the other way would surely love to stop here for a water break, both to drink some and maybe wade in the creek.
The bridge is in need of repair from years of decay, neglect, and vandalism. In 2008, Stillwater Township provided $5,000 to help with restoration efforts, according to a St. Paul Pioneer Press article:
Township residents at their annual meeting Tuesday voted unanimously to contribute $5,000 to preserve the Old Stone Bridge. The limestone bridge dates back to either 1852 or 1863.
“We really, really feel proud of (the bridge),” town supervisor Linda Countryman said. “Citizens are very proud that it is in the township, and it was a very positive meeting as a result.”
The bridge’s owner, Barb Medinger, said last week that the limestone structure is crumbling and in desperate need of repair.
Trees are growing out of both ends of the bridge, and part of it has been washed away by Brown’s Creek trout stream below. Kids shooting off M-80s damaged it last Fourth of July, she said.
“It’s eroding, and vandals have been compromising it by pulling out the stones,” she said.
The new bike trail is going to be terrific. Now I just hope some folks at the Minnesota or Washington County Historical Societies, the DNR, or another entity, particularly one with access to funds from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, figures out a way to preserve the bridge ($54.5 million of the tax money in FY 2011 is dedicated for arts, arts education, and arts access, and to preserve Minnesota’s history and cultural heritage). It might not have to be through outright state ownership, but something must be possible.
I visit the bridge at least a few times a year. It’s a peaceful place, with the clear water of Brown’s Creek pooling up before rushing through the cataract of the bridge and then down the shady canyon toward the river. Dogs love to splash in that pool. The bridge feels like a gift from the past, a modern American ruin. It ought to be saved before it’s just a pile of limestone rapidly washing away in the waters of the creek.