Some elements of our streetscape are ugly and depressing. Some are old and a bit dangerous. But there was a miserable piece of ancient infrastructure that wasn’t just annoying. It was lethal: the Washington Avenue viaduct.
Some longtime Twin Cities residents undoubtedly remember it — a dark, tar-stained bridge over a trough near Washington and Chicago Avenues S. Rusted girders, rotten wood, somber stone.
Its builders would be astonished to see the area today, full of new housing, factories converted for residential use, the mill decommissioned, the riverfront clean, strange inexplicable structures like the Guthrie and U.S. Bank Stadium.
When the viaduct went up, this wasn’t a place to live, this was a place to sweat.
The viaduct went up in the early 1880s, one of several railroad projects designed to solve the problem of trains, horses and people all competing for existing streets. Bids were accepted in 1883; by April of the next year, the St. Paul Globe reported that excavation was “progressing quite rapidly.” There doesn’t seem to have been any ribbon-cutting ceremony, possibly because the viaduct was a homely, gloomy thing.
In a few years, the influence of the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 would change the way people expected civic structures to look. If it had been built later, perhaps the viaduct would have had some classical touches — a stone eagle or two, some Roman columns. But what they built in 1884 was iron and wood, meant to last, not to impress. It had one job: to get the trains over the street.
Doesn’t seem like it worked out too well.
“No man’s life was safe” when crossing the train tracks that lanced across Washington Avenue, an 1887 Tribune story said. There was “intolerable loss by constant and prolonged and increasing detention.”
So the viaduct was redesigned. This time they dug deeper.
But the viaduct remained in the news. In 1909, two female bandits (Mary Walker and Rose Brown) brandished pistols and held up two men for $86 under the viaduct. And it was often the scene of accidents, for one reason: The damned thing was too narrow.
Two lanes of traffic were narrowed to accommodate the piers that supported the railroad bridge and to provide a middle lane for the streetcar. As cars got faster and more numerous, the viaduct began to assume a grim notoriety. In 1935, a fatal crash of “an autoist” into the viaduct led to regulations requiring illumination of the city’s shadow-shrouded underpasses.
A 1939 three-car crash took the life of a high school student. In 1941, after another rash of accidents, a grand jury was assigned to study the “situation that has caused heavy toll of lives and property,” as the newspaper put it.
In 1947, Tribune columnist George Grim wrote a bitterly sarcastic column in which he interviewed “Old Man Viaduct,” giving the bridge a gleefully sadistic personality.
“Let’s see — about 20 to 30 cars drive right up and let me smack ’em each year. I’ve got records here of 237 accidents … five dead … in 10 years … 152 injured. But I’ve really done much better than that. Here, look at my press clippings, Here’s a speech by Hubert Humphrey — the names he calls me!”
After noting that his warning lights were inadequate and he needs a new coat of paint, Old Man Viaduct described himself: “I’m the Minneapolis answer to those old New England covered bridges. So romantic. So dark inside. So narrow. Only I’m covered with blood.”
The 1950s and ’60s passed without any changes to the viaduct. The ’70s rolled in and the viaduct remained. Why? The railroad was still necessary to serve several companies along the Hiawatha Avenue corridor. Among those companies was the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, which had its massive rolls of newsprint delivered by train. When the newspaper built a new printing plant in the North Loop in 1983, it was another nail in the viaduct’s coffin.
In 1984, it was gone.
Well, almost. For a few more decades, there was an ancient wall of old stone left over from the viaduct. It’s gone now, too. A new apartment building is going up where the stone wall once stood.
There won’t be any memorial plaque, no historical marker, for the viaduct. Maybe there should be. It was one of the most dangerous, deadly intersections in town, and it lasted for an entire century.
James Lileks • 612-673-7858 • @Lileks