Bridging continents, bridging the Mississippi

Posted in: Cultural Resources

Tour-goers view Kristoffer Olsen Oustad’s 1929 Cedar Avenue (Tenth Avenue) Bridge over the Mississippi in Minneapolis.

The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul not only have the Mississippi River, they’ve also been home to one of the largest urban communities of Norwegian immigrants in the U.S. Out of that community came a remarkable group of Norwegian-American bridge engineers, including Frederick W. Cappelen, Kristoffer Olsen Oustad, Andreas Munster, Martin Grytbak and Leif Johan “Jack” Sverdrup. Sverdrup designed some of the most significant Mississippi River bridges in the first decades of the 20th Century.

Recently I joined a tour of these Twin Cities’ bridges conducted by the Norwegian-American Historical Association and the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians. Our tour visited seven Mississippi bridges, including Cappelen’s crowning achievement, the 1923 Franklin Avenue Bridge. The Franklin Avenue Bridge is the world’s longest concrete-arch span at 400 feet. When he died during its construction, it was formally renamed the Cappelen Memorial Bridge. In addition to Cappelen’s span and three other major concrete-arch bridges were included in the tour: an 1887 truss span, an 1885/1922 railroad deck truss, and a double-deck steel girder bridge from 1965 (the most recent bridge on the tour). Maybe it was just a coincidence, but the tour guides — experienced bridge historians and a bridge engineer — were Norwegian-American descendants.

Like many early bridge engineers, several of the Norwegian-Americans began as railroad engineers before moving on to become the city bridge engineers of either Minneapolis (Cappelen) or St. Paul (Munster and Grytbak). Oustad spent his career with the City of Minneapolis and also became its bridge engineer. Sverdrup, who worked in the highway departments of both Minnesota and Missouri, founded the noted St. Louis engineering firm of Sverdrup and Parcel.

If you would like to learn more, pick up a copy of Kenneth Bjork’s classic 1947 study, Saga in Steel and Concrete: Norwegian Engineers in America. It provides the research background for the tour.

Bob Frame

About the Author

Bob Frame sees history in our everyday industrial buildings and landscape. Specializing in industrial and engineering history, Bob has spent his career learning about bridges, grain elevators and flour mills. “It is often the technical details that reveal the most interesting story and lead us to understand the importance of these resources,” he says.

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