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When Ed Heinz graduated from Hastings High School in 1950, a new powder-blue bridge was being built over the Mississippi River. That bridge replaced the iconic spiral structure that had defined the city for half a century.

“My brother used to work on a barge down the river to St. Louis and back in the summers,” said Heinz, now retired from the Air Force in Leesburg, Va. Everybody knew about the old bridge, he said, as one of the only spiral bridges in the world.

Hastings Mayor Paul Hicks says the new Hastings Bridge, which opens all four lanes to traffic on Nov. 17, continues that tradition of landmark bridges. At 1,938 feet, the new bridge — painted terra cotta to match the buildings downtown — is the longest free-standing tied-arch bridge on the continent.

“It’s a signature bridge,” he said. “We get to keep that uniqueness.”

It was congestion and safety that prompted the Minnesota Department of Transportation to start replacing the old bridge, the main entrance into town and a crossing into Washington County, in 2010. With 33,000 people crossing a day — the most traffic of any two-lane bridge in Minnesota — southbound commuters could get backed up into Cottage Grove, more than five miles away, said MnDOT spokeswoman Kirsten Klein.

The agency built the four-lane bridge, which opened two of its lanes in June, to ease that congestion, and to make space for handling emergencies on the bridge without stopping traffic. The $130 million project also replaced a small nearby bridge over a railway and added several amenities to the main bridge. They include a bike and pedestrian path next to the bridge, parking beneath it and open spaces near it, including a mural along a bridge wall, a public plaza and a ­scenic overlook.

Early construction on the project was marked by a number of delays, including high water levels, the 2011 state government shutdown and the discovery of artifacts from 1800s riverfront saloons, which prompted a federal archaeological dig. In response, Klein said, contractors scheduled overtime and weekend work to keep the project on target. She said work on bridge lighting, landscaping and the median will continue into 2014.

‘A piece of history’

Almost every day of construction, Dave Youngren of Hastings was there with his camera. In September 2010, he was by the river and noticed a barge floating up with materials for the bridge, so he snapped a picture for his brother and a friend. That picture grew into a Facebook page with nearly 3,300 users following the new photos and news bits Youngren posts each weekday.

“The new bridge is a beautiful sight to see,” said Youngren, a 55-year-old creative director for a printing and marketing company. “It’s pretty hard for me not to take a picture of it as the sun comes up. I probably have over 5,000 photos of it.”

The construction also has interested people from out of town, said Wendy Dodge-Agen, Youngren’s sister-in-law, who owns the Onion Grille in downtown Hastings. She has served guests who come just to see the bridge.

“It’s great for our little town,” she said. “It’s a big project; it’s a piece of history.”

That excitement has helped ease the sting of lost business from the closed-off side streets and congestion brought by construction.

“It put chills on every business downtown because of traffic,” she said.

Mayor Hicks acknowledged the difficulties of construction. “There was some negative activity,” he said.

But in the end, “it’s probably not as bad as [businesses] thought it would be.” He said the city, the Hastings Chamber of Commerce and MnDOT made a strong effort to let people know that downtown was accessible throughout the project.

Now that the work is finished, Hicks said, Hastings can look forward to Hwy. 61 bringing new business instead of complaints. The travel time from Minneapolis and St. Paul will be shorter, and metro-area residents who might have visited the historic river town won’t be discouraged by traffic backups.

“It opens the door for more economic activity, economic development,” he said.

The new landmark has already become part of the town’s daily rituals, from Youngren’s Facebook page to the baker who pauses at Dodge-Agen’s window to check the view after making his deliveries.

She does the same each morning when she gets to work, and laughs to think what she’ll do as construction ends.

“I grab my cup of coffee, I stand by my windows, and watch. When it’s done,” she said, “that part of my day is done.”

Graison Hensley Chapman is a Northfield freelance writer.