Zumbrota has the last of Minnesota’s covered bridges

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 10, 2001

Several years ago, June 1997 to be exact, I wrote a column about the famous spiral bridge at Hastings and the really odd bridge with a jog at Wabasha.

Friday, August 10, 2001

Several years ago, June 1997 to be exact, I wrote a column about the famous spiral bridge at Hastings and the really odd bridge with a jog at Wabasha. Both of these bridges over the Mississippi River are now just memories. However, there are two very historic bridges even closer to Albert Lea which still exist and serve as reminders of life in another era.

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One of these historic gems is the covered bridge in Zumbrota, the very last one of this type in Minnesota.

Most people have the postcard image of a covered bridge in a tranquil village or countryside setting somewhere in New England. However, a novel and film a few years ago about the covered bridges of Madison County proved that these structures are also a part of life in Iowa. In fact, covered bridges are still being preserved and can be observed from New England to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Alabama, Georgia, and west to the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

The covered bridge at Zumbrota was constructed in 1869 on the north edge of the village so folks could go across the Zumbro River. It served as a link for the stagecoach route between Dubuque, Iowa, to Rochester and on to St. Paul. In time, the bridge was used by area farmers and residents with their horse-drawn vehicles. Then, for about three decades, the bridge served as a one-lane way to get across the river for cars and trucks.

The Zumbrota covered bridge is 116 feet long and has a deck width of 15 feet. It’s of the lattice wooden-truss type and based on one of several designs developed by the Yankees of New England.

Maybe the name says it all, yet a covered bridge can be described as a long shed spanning a stream or river which is open on both ends.

A reference book lists these six reasons why covered bridges were once developed and used:

One, to keep water out of the wooden joists to prevent freezing or rotting.

Two, to keep the deck dry because the wood was preserved with oil which became slippery when wet.

Three, to strengthen the structure with more weight.

Four, to keep the bridge interior from drying out in very hot weather. This helped to prevent problems with the structure loosening or sagging.

Five, to keep snow and/or ice off the deck during the winter.

The sixth reason is the oddest, yet very logical. Horses and other animals would cross the stream a lot easier if they thought of the bridge as just another farm building with always open doors.

Now, let’s get back to the subject of the Zumbrota covered bridge. In 1932, the Minnesota Highway Department replaced this pioneer structure with a two-lane steel bridge. The covered bridge was moved to the nearby Goodhue County Fairgrounds for preservation purposes.

About 1970, the bridge was moved to the Zumbrota Covered Bridge Park not far from the place where it once spanned the river. However, the unique bridge now actually spanned dry land. This was an odd placement and many people in the area thought the historical bridge sitting over nothing but a grassy depression in the park was rather ridiculous.

After a major fund drive the bridge, which is now on the National Register of Historic Sites, was moved to the south end of the park in early 1997. Once again the old covered bridge spans the Zumbro River about a block to the west of the original site.

This bridge is open for pedestrian and bicycle use. On the north end is the city’s major park and the start of a paved hiking trail. On the south end is the new Zumbrota Public Library and the even newer City Hall/Police Station building.

In the next column we’ll have information about a pioneer covered bridge which was even closer to Albert Lea. And thanks to the Owatonna Public Library, there will be an update on another historic bridge

which is now 107 years old.

Feature writer Ed Shannon’s column appears Fridays in the Tribune.