In the very near future, an old bridge will be torn down in the city of Sauk Rapids that crosses the Great Mississippi. With its removal will go the memories of many generations in the past. The following is a story about a bridge that was removed from the Sauk River not to far from Sauk Rapids and one of the stories that disappeared with the destruction of this piece of history.
On Wednesday, April 28th, 2004, the old highway 23 iron bridge across the Sauk River in Cold Spring, Minnesota, disappeared from sight to make room for a new four-lane concrete bridge. This is the story about the old bridge and the "bridge kids" that used it as a giant playground and Olympic diving board over 60 years ago. The Bridge Of Memories (original story written by Ted Krebsbach) The old iron bridge that used to cross over the Sauk River where highway 23 passes through Cold Spring is now history. A year ago the old two lane erector set type bridge made from heavy iron beams was replaced by a massive 4 lane slab of concrete.
This visual change over the river has been witnessed by all who either live or pass through our town. However, most folks will not realize the many precious memories that were linked to the old iron bridge. The bridge, infact, was a unique and challenging playground for many neighborhood kids growing up in Cold Spring. A story that dates back some 60 years ago. The iron bridge was built over and adjacent to the favorite swimming hole for a group called the “bridge kids” who gathered there during the hot days of summer.
On the west side of the river towards downtown, the river bottom was sandy and gentle sloping. It was perfect for beginners. As the rookie swimmer would make their way out into deeper water, there was a large bolder right at the drop off line in the river. Appropraitely referenced as “the rock”, non-swimmers were warned not to journey beyond the rock for their own safety.
As your swimming skills improved, you could evenutally earn the right to swim on the other side of the river, beyond the rock. To do this, you had to successfully pass a commonly accepted test among the bridge kids. Your challenge was to swim totally across the river by yourself,escorted by two or three seasoned swimmers along the way. Once you showed you could swim this distance, you were given the privilege of swimming with the big guys in the deep whole across the river.
Some of the big guys in this case were just third and fourth graders, but each had proved his or her swimming skills in crossing the river, thus becoming one of the big guys. Yes, some of the big guys were girls as well. We never had life guards and there was never any sort of serious accident during my years of growing upas a bridge kid.
As kids, we saw the bridge as the biggest jungle gym you could ever imagine. Dozens of kids could be seen crawling, walking and running across every imaginable location on that bridge. Sometimes you saw kids where no one would ever imagine someone might climb. The bridge was there and it became the jumping and diving platform for all who were willing to dare the risk.
The intricate bridge construction with heavy iron beams going many directions offered varying degrees of challenges for the bridge kid swimmer aspiring to become a bridge kid diver. The lowest level, below the traffic road bed was known as the “black”. It provided an 8 foot distance for either jumping or diving into the river. The rail immediately above the road bed was called the “silver”, as its color may have prompted, offering a 16 foot jump or dive. The next level up approximately half way between the road way and the top of the bridge was called the “cross bar”. From here it was 25 feet to the water. This level separated the men from the boys, as people would say today. Then, the final and most difficult challenge was available on the top of the bridge fondly referred to as the “high cross bar” providing almost a 50 distance to entering the deep hole of the river.
The bridge kids had various levels of diving recognition. By jumping from the very top of the bridge you became known as a “topper”. By diving from the high cross bar, you joined a small elite group of “high cross bar” divers. These two accomplishments were well know and recognized by the bridge kids. Parents, on the other hand, may have called this group something a little less flattering. While there is no way of knowing just how many kids met this challenge, I know there were at least a dozen “toppers” and perhaps just a few less “high cross bar” divers.
Travelers driving along the highway would sometimes stop in the adjacent park next to the bridge or along the roadway, just to marvel at the kids jumping and diving from the bridge. The bridge was frequently so full of kids that the highway patrol regularly came by to chase us away. When ever the highway patrol would arrive, the kids would mysteriously disappear after jumping into the river. As soon as the patrolman left, everyone would quickly return and the jumping, diving and swimming would all continue.
I grew up in a home near the river and the kids on top of the bridge were quite visible from our house. Mom would question me whether I was one of those kids climbing around on the top of the bridge and I assured her she could trust me. In truth, there were many times I watched her working in the garden from my perch on top of the old iron bridge. I hope the good lord knew I didn't want mom to worry and will forgive me for this indiscretion.
In the winter the bridge acted as a rooftop over the river and kept the snow off providing a place for ice skating. The granite company near by, provided a ready source for waste wood that could quickly be organized into a warm winter bonfire.
Thinking back on those years, we all know the river was dirty and the bridge was not the place for kids. But the bridge kids didn't do drugs and their activities didn't hurt anyone. We grew to be good swimmers, without lots of expensive youth programs. The bridge kids also did a good job of watching out for one another, while having lots of fun. Yes, we have lots of good memories, which will remain even now that the bridge is gone. I have waited till now to tell this story because on the new four-lane concrete bridge, there will be no way to copycat these stories of what took place on the Old Iron Bridge and the “Bridge Kids”.
Some of the kids Ted remembers jumping and diving from the bridge included the Rausches, the Neis’ brothers, Carl Theis, Phil Peters, Dave Engelmeyer, the Barthels, Leanard Maile, Don Bell, and Fuzzy Fiala. Rumor has it, Ted Krebsbach was one of the youngest and yet most daring Highway 23 Bridge kids.