It wasn’t long after the opening of the Arrowhead Bridge in 1927 that Duluth and Superior city officials and residents started chafing at the limitations — and the tolls — of the old Interstate Bridge, which still carried most vehicle traffic between the two cities. Duluth formed a citizens’ committee to look into ways of getting federal money for a replacement span at Rice’s Point.
“While the citizens’ committee was in operation in Duluth in 1934, Superior applied for a grant to build a tunnel,” the News Tribune reported in a 1961 recounting of the events. “The federal government told the two cities to get together on a single project.”
They weren’t able to reach an agreement before New Deal-era funding started to dry up. A renewed attempt in 1940 was sidelined by World War II.
In 1948, the city of Duluth hired engineers to study a new “high level bridge,” and a report issued in 1951 advocated a crossing from Garfield Avenue in Duluth to Hammond Avenue in Superior. A bridge curving to meet up with Tower Avenue was among the other routes considered — and the tunnel concept lingered on in the public discussion through the 1950s, alternately pitched as a lower-cost alternative to the bridge or derided as a “sheer folly” of an idea.
Also among hot topics of debate: How many lanes of traffic the bridge should carry, and how high it should be above the water. Rep. John Blatnik, who had championed the bridge project for years, helped mediate a compromise: a four-lane bridge rising to 120 feet above St. Louis Bay.
As initially approved by Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers, “it was to be a toll structure. However, public demand was growing for a toll-free bridge,” the News Tribune recounted when the bridge opened. “The Minnesota and Wisconsin (legislatures) set up committees to determine means of financing a toll-free bridge. But next came a major development in Congress — adoption of a national system of interstate and defense highways. The bridge became part of that system and the federal government stepped in with 90 percent of the cost. That solved the financing.”
As built, the High Bridge — carrying traffic on the newly designated Interstate 535 — was 7,975 feet long and cost about $15 million. Three men lost their lives during its construction.
The bridge opened to the public on Dec. 2, 1961, with a gathering of 4,000 people on the center span, including local and state dignitaries from both sides of the border. The Denfeld and Superior Cathedral high school bands performed.
“I feel certain that this bridge will link your two cities and states more closely than ever before, not just in a physical way, but in social, economic and community spirit as well,” Rex Whitton, federal highway administrator, told the crowd.
Rep. Alvin E. O’Konski of Wisconsin joked that his state got a good deal, because Minnesota and Wisconsin split the 10 percent of the cost not covered by the federal government — but the bridge was three-quarters in Wisconsin.
Minnesota Gov. Elmer Andersen countered that his state was fine with that arrangement — given the number of Wisconsinites expected to cross the bridge to spend their money in Duluth.
In 1971, the High Bridge was renamed in honor of Blatnik, to recognize his efforts on behalf of the bridge and the federal system in general.
The bridge was built with the expectation of peak traffic of about 14,000 vehicles a day; by the early 1990s, the bridge was averaging about 26,000 vehicles a day. It was closed for a massive rebuild project at that time, and underwent another major rehabilitation project in 2012-13.
More repairs took place in fall 2016, and still more are on the horizon for 2020.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation reported earlier this year that an inspection in summer 2017 rated the bridge’s condition as “adequate,” but officials are still looking at a rebuilding or replacement of the bridge by as soon as 2028.
What stories and memories do you have about the construction of the Blatnik Bridge and the span in the years since? Share them by posting a comment.
Here are a few more photos from the DNT archives: