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Step Back in Time Inside the State's Oldest Covered Bridge

By Kaomi Lee

Wayne Radke loves bridges. He has devoted much of his time as a retired minister to learning the history of covered bridges, especially the one in his city of Zumbrota, Minn.

It was built by a local carpenter for $5,800 in 1869 and remains the oldest historic covered bridge in the state. Spanning the Zumbro River, the bridge is now located 1,000 feet from its original perch, where it was once part of a stagecoach route from Dubuque to Saint Paul. Radke, who is on the task force to maintain and preserve the bridge, recently showed us the bridge's main attraction.

"If you look through here, you see a big bolt. And that bolt goes through about five layers of timber. And that kind of strength was necessary because these bridges were built without any center pier holding up in the middle, they had to support everything from the floor of the bridge, so this had to be a good support," he said.

The bridge is considered an example of a lattice truss design, with crisscrossing white pine timbers that form the support for the covered structure. It's the most authentic bridge of this kind in the state, and has even earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

"When you learn the history of the bridge and learn how vital [covered bridges] were to young communities, and you begin to understand how important it was to find a way to get across the water. And vital for families as they had to connect to each other on the opposites of the river. And vital for business. And so you begin to pick up on all those stories, and you realize that they represent an era of history when these bridges provided the major transportation," Radke added.

This year, the bridge marked its 150th year. But it also suffered a major blow. In February, the roof sank under the weight of heavy winter snow. To replace the bridge without compromising its place on the National Register, the city will have to use authentic materials and construction practices, which carry a cost.

"Three-hundred thousand [dollars] for a town this size is a lot of money," Zumbrota Administrator Neil Jensen said.

Fortunately, the city had insurance. The roof is currently being repaired and will be returned in the coming months.

The bridge has survived before. In 1932, the state's Department of Transportation replaced it with a steel bridge that could handle increased traffic, and the covered bridge was moved to the Goodhue County Fairgrounds. Later, a society was formed to preserve the bridge and move it to its current location near city hall. Today, it is now an icon of the city, and serves as a crossing for pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

Radke said it is a lasting remnant of a bygone era.

This story was published August 6, 2019.

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