By Mary Divine
In 1931, Amos Schultz drove his brother's 1929 truck to downtown Stillwater for the grand opening of the Stillwater Lift Bridge.
On Tuesday, Schultz, 96, returned to downtown Stillwater for another milestone -- the ceremonial groundbreaking for the new St. Croix River bridge.
"I think it's time," said Schultz, a retired farmer. "Maybe it's even overdue."
Schultz was one of about 150 people who attended the event at the Water Street Inn and Lowell Park. Among the dignitaries were Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.; Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.; Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.; Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., and Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis.
Schultz, who was 15 in 1931, has fond memories of the Lift Bridge's grand opening.
"It was a nice day, I remember that," he said. "Down on the end here, over by the Commander Elevator, they had a big pit and they roasted a whole steer. A friend of mine, Leo Klein, climbed up on the railing of the new bridge and jumped off. He was wearing a pair of bib overalls. He landed feet first in the water and swam to shore."
Schultz, whose family farmed in West Lakeland Township, said his father built a horse barn with planks from the wooden bridge that preceded the Lift Bridge.
He's now following the progress of the new bridge from his condo at Sunnyside Marina in Oak Park Heights.
"I like it," he said. "I see them doing work on it all the time. Today they were really active down there.
I live on the river side, so I can watch everything going on."
Barges are already in place in the river as work begins on the bridge piers. This summer, 120 barges will serve as support vessels for seven cranes and more than 100 workers, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
A no-wake zone is now in effect for a mile-long stretch of the river around the worksite. River patrols to enforce the no-wake rule will be increased, said Jon Chiglo, St. Croix River bridge project manager.
The biggest highway traffic impact will occur after July 4, when Minnesota 36 will be reduced to one lane in each direction, he said.
Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki said his city will willingly suffer through construction headaches to achieve the finished project.
"This is a bridge that the community has wanted since the days of President Truman," he said.
It was Harycki who provided the 34 "gold" shovels used for the ceremonial groundbreaking. He said he bought 10 from Menards for $2.99, depleting that store's supply, then 24 at Lowe's for $3.50 each. "I spent the whole weekend spraying gold paint on them," he said.
The groundbreaking was held in Stillwater instead of Oak Park Heights because of a lack of parking near the site of the new bridge.
"I know this day is a long time coming," Duffy said. "That lift bridge was built in 1931. If you think back to 1931, Model Ts were everywhere on our U.S. roads. In 1931, Al Capone was convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to 11 years in prison. And in 1931, the Green Bay Packers won their first league championship. And as Minnesota knows, there were way more of those to come."
Klobuchar said a new bridge was needed to address congestion in downtown Stillwater and safety concerns.
"I had residents tell me they would roll their window down as they went over the (lift) bridge because they were worried," she said. "These are not joking matters. These are things that happen. I live six blocks from that eight-lane highway that fell down in the middle of the Mississippi River," Klobuchar said, referring to the Aug. 1, 2007, collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis.
MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle said the bridge project, which is expected to cost $580 million to $676 million, should be on time and under budget. The bridge is expected to open in 2016.
Schultz said he hopes to be around for that grand opening, too.
"God, I hope I make it," he said. "Three more years."