Tyler Vigen had wondered about the odd pedestrian bridge linking Bloomington and Richfield over Interstate 494 for years. But it wasn't until he finally walked the bridge one day in early July, after dropping off his wife at the airport, that he had to find out why it was there.
Up close, the bridge made even less sense than from down on 494. On the Richfield side, it didn't even end at a sidewalk, just a patch of grass across from Taco Bell. The Bloomington side of the bridge ended in a warehouse parking lot.
"It just made me more curious," Vigen said.
So he decided to figure out why the bridge was built, going from Googling on his couch in Bloomington all the way to the National Archives records facility in Kansas City, Mo. and back again this summer.
He squeezed in about 100 hours of research around his day job as a management consultant — and wound up with an essay recounting his quest he published online Monday that's drawn an unexpected audience of readers eager to go down the rabbit hole with him.
Vigen almost gave up when he couldn't find an easy answer online, but he couldn't drop it. He read about the federal highway system in online archives and in old newspapers. He called the Minnesota Department of Transportation and explored the Minnesota History Center's archives.
At every step, he told himself, he had already come this far — so why not take that next step. "Why shouldn't I just go down to the National Archives in Kansas City?" he said.
Even when he got to Kansas City, Mo., the files Vigen wanted seemed to be missing, so he had to travel yet another avenue to get at the answer. The process should have been frustrating, he said, but he welcomed the distractions because he was pursuing his own curiosity.
And there was always another thread to pull, he said, because he was open to learning more about local history — especially a time in the 1950s he had not known much about.
"Every time I was running into a dead end, there was a very interesting adjacent path," he said.
Vigen got the sense that his summer project might have broader appeal when he started describing his pursuit to friends and co-workers, who seemed interested.
So he published a 6,000-word essay about the so-called Bloomfield Bridge on his website, recounting his journey and his eventual discovery that the bridge was built in 1959 to connect Assumption church and school in Richfield with the Bloomington neighborhood across the freeway where many parishioners and students lived.
According to newspaper stories that Vigen unearthed, then-Richfield Mayor Fred Kittell had demanded the bridge as a condition of building the freeway through the area.
A pedestrian bridge today actually might happen in much the same way, said Kristin Asher, Richfield's public works director: The community expressing a need to city leaders, who work with state and county officials to get it done.
Take a new pedestrian bridge about to be built over I-494, connecting Richfield and Bloomington near Chicago Avenue, about a half-mile east of Vigen's mystery bridge. After hearing from residents, Asher said, Richfield has been working with MnDOT to get the bridge included as part of the freeway's reconstruction.
The new bridge's purpose? Future historians may want to highlight this section: The bridge will connect a group of apartment complexes in Richfield with the Walmart just across 494 in Bloomington, where many of those apartment residents shop.
The need for the bridge was underscored earlier this year, when a driver killed 17-year-old Donald Gayton Jr. of Richfield and seriously injured his younger sister as they were making their way home after buying candy at Walmart. They had been walking along a frontage road to the closest freeway crossing, the vehicle bridge at 12th Avenue.
Vigen's essay was shared widely on social media and local online forums, and he has spent the last week dealing with the response. Though a little overwhelming, Vigen said, it's been heartwarming to know that so many people enjoyed learning about his research project. Many of them let him know they used the bridge as schoolchildren.
"I know people don't get a kick of it because they want to know bridge facts," he said.
Even if the reason for the bridge's placement was straightforward, and there might have been easier ways to figure it out, Vigen said he enjoyed the process of asking questions and pulling threads.
"The fun is in going down every other rabbit hole," he said. "There are just so many more adjacent interesting things to learn."