Past the river end of St. Paul’s Summit Avenue, Riverside Boulevard takes a 3,000-ft. looping detour around Shadow Falls Park. Why isn’t the gorge bridged? A 600-foot span would add captivating views and picturesque charm, and cut half a mile off of a riverside journey besides.
Shadow Falls had that name at least from the 1890s; there is some indication that it was referred to as Finn’s Glen before 1877. It was a popular spot for public recreation in the late 19th century. The presence close to town of a sylvan waterfall that visitors could actually walk behind had to be a big part of the appeal.
The land that includes the Shadow Falls gorge, and further acreage to the north along the river, was given to the city by Archbishop John Ireland in 1899. The park was created in 1902, and the first segment of what would become Mississippi River Boulevard was in place on that land before 1903. Why didn’t the planners bridge the Shadow Creek gorge?
In the image below, showing Shadow Falls Park courtesy of Google Maps, a 600-ft. bridge is sketched in along Mississippi River Boulevard, with 200-ft. squares for scale. Such a bridge wouldn’t have prevented the Daughters of the American Revolution from constructing a Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the park, as they did in 1923.
Was a bridge on this scale too ambitious for 1900-level technology? Not at all. The left photo below shows a postcard of the first Fort Snelling bridge, constructed in 1880; it spans 1075 feet. (It was replaced in 1912. The Rte. 5 bridge now in place is the third such structure.) The right-hand photo is of a bridge that might have fit in aesthetically along the Mississippi: the Dingman’s Ferry Bridge in New Jersey, put up in 1900. Its length is 547 ft. and the longest span 182 ft.
Was the geology unsuitable for supporting bridge abutments? That’s not it. Underneath the sandstone, limestone, and shale uncovered in the creek’s ravine runs a solid layer of Shakopee Dolomite, perfect for anchoring robust structures.
It’s the Carriages, Stupid
We may assume that Mississippi River Boulevard was conceived and constructed with horse-drawn traffic in mind — mostly. A history of how the automobile came to the Twin Cities, written in 1945 by Dorothy V. Walters, notes that as late as 1908 the auto was something of a curiosity here, and few believed it would ever gain much popularity.
The first manufactured automobile — a gasoline-powered Winton — was brought to St. Paul in 1899 by a dentist, Dr. I.E. Siqveland. In 1900, one J. George Smith acquired a Waverly electric vehicle. By 1903 there was at least one manufactory of gasoline autos in the Cities, and in 1905 the total manufactured output nationwide was 24,550 cars.
Automobiles were first licensed in this era, and license number 1 for Ramsey County was issued in May, 1903 to R.C. Wright, the owner of a Packard car. State licensing began in 1907, by which time there were around 500 automobiles in Minnesota.
The purpose of the river way was all recreational. I doubt that through traffic was given any thought at all. When the St. Paul Park Board was established in 1887, one of its first acts was to survey the land within 200 feet of the river, from the Minneapolis line in the north to 3 miles below the Fort Snelling bridge (pictured above). The park commissioners asked the city to condemn that land so it could be developed as a parkway, but no action happened on that front until Archbishop Ireland’s gift kickstarted the River Boulevard.
The 1903 annual report of St. Paul’s Board of Park Commissioners (published in 1906 and here digitized by Google) extolls the unparalleled virtues of the riverside park a-building (the emphasis is mine):
So the architects of Mississippi River Boulevard did envision “rustic bridges” spanning ravines. Perhaps a 600-foot bridge simply couldn’t be constructed that the visionaries would consider sufficiently rustic in appearance.