AMBOY — Kristen Johnson, the great-granddaughter of Lawrence Henry Johnson, walked on the Dodd Ford Bridge Saturday, 116 years after her ancestor designed and built it.
"I'm so thrilled they saved it," said Johnson, who came from California.
The bridge was slated for destruction a decade ago because it was unsound for modern traffic. It was to be replaced by a two-lane bridge, but efforts by local residents led to it being rebuilt as a heavy-duty, but one-lane bridge.
Johnson said she was on the internet a few years ago reading about her great-grandfather when she ran across stories about efforts to save the bridge. She made a trip here a couple of years ago and saw the bridge when it still had its old wooden deck, which is now replaced by concrete.
"It was great to be able to go across it when the wood was still on there and hear it creaking."
L.H. Johnson was a German immigrant who served as a postmaster in Michigan before settling in Minnesota where he started the Hennepin Bridge Co. He was also a state legislator and served as speaker of the House.
Last year, after the bridge was reinstalled, the county had a dedication ceremony.
"This is more of a community event," said Lisa Lindberg, owner of the Amboy Cottage Cafe who was the driving force behind saving the bridge.
The event showed off a new viewing platform next to the bridge that was made by area residents.
"They used the old timbers off the deck (of the bridge) to make the platform," Lindberg said. "They're not the originals because they've been replaced several times, but they're big old timbers. The guys worked hard to pull all the nails out of them."
The platform has some information panels telling about the history of the bridge. The group is working on a river access as well. "It's like a small park area," Lindberg said.
Saturday's event featured a picnic where free-will donations went toward the cost of the platform and other related work. Residents also brought several dozen homemade pies for the gathering.
Les Curry, who was helping out at the event, said most people are happy the bridge was saved.
"There's only one here and one in Redwood County like this," Curry said. "There was a big debate over it, but there was a compromise in the end."
Tom Hagen, of North Mankato, has long worked to save historic buildings in the area. It's an effort, he said, that often ends in failure, so he was glad to see the bridge survive.
"It's a beautiful and wonderful thing that it was saved, but it's never easy."
Kevin Friesen, of Grand Rapids, and his sister Denise, of North Mankato, were also in attendance. Their family owns the land on both sides of the river by the bridge, a 20-acre parcel their parents bought some 40 years ago and use for recreation, fire wood and some gardening.
The family donated some land by the bridge for the observation deck and to build a canoe launch.
Kevin said their parents, who weren't able to make it to the event, were thrilled the old bridge was saved and happy to donate a piece of the land. "They were never happier than when they were out here."
The bridge, just southwest of Amboy, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It had been shuttered to all vehicles for more than five years. The bridge was both a fracture-critical bridge, meaning the failure of one component could cause the entire structure to collapse, and also functionally obsolete — too narrow and too weak to carry modern vehicles.
The Dodd Ford Bridge Preservation Society formed to fight the planned demolition and also opposed alternatives such as moving it or building a modern bridge beside it.
Transportation officials weren't keen on investing money into preserving the bridge, which couldn't safely carry farm vehicles.
But after years of impasse, now retired County Engineer Al Forsberg came up with an idea to lift the entire bridge up with a crane and place it on the bank of the Blue Earth River while a modern bridge deck using steel beams was built, with the bridge then replaced. While it remains only one lane, it can carry the weight of modern traffic.
The county approved the $1.5 million project a couple of years ago and state officials agreed to cover 90 percent of the cost.
"It was a 10-year-long effort," Lindberg said. "It's a compromise but I think everyone is happy. The farmers who come in to the cafe are happy they can still bring their equipment across it, and we're happy the bridge is still there to tell the story."