Minnesota Department of Transportation

511 Travel Info

Hwy 65/Third Avenue Bridge

Minneapolis

Third Ave. Bridge history

Introduction

The Third Ave. Bridge spans the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis and opened in 1918. The bridge is historically significant as an example of one of the first reinforced-concrete arch bridges over the Mississippi in the Twin Cities and also for its key role in connecting downtown with an emerging Northeast Minneapolis (or “East Bank” as it was referred to at the time). This page highlights the exciting history of the bridge planning, design, construction and legacy of the Third Ave. Bridge.

Historic photo of the Third Avenue Bridge in 1915

”This bridge will answer the ever-recurring demand for more convenient communication between the two banks of the river. It was the lack of such communication that so long kept St. Anthony the town, and Minneapolis but a field of undeveloped opportunities.”

”The Third Ave. Bridge,” Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, July 18, 1915.
(1920’s Hennepin County Library)

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Historical timeline of the Third Ave. Bridge

A graphic timeline describing  major bridge events starting in 1914 through 2020
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An expanding Minneapolis

A graphic showing bridge usage in 1910 by pedestrians, bicycles/motorcyclists, wagons, autos, and carriages across the Old 10th Avenue Bridge, the Plymouth Avenue Bridge, and the Hennepin Avenue Bridge.

Original traffic count from 1910 – Talk about multimodal!
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In the early 20th Century, Minneapolis was going through a period of expansion and population growth. The key downtown crossings of the river were the Hennepin Ave., 10th Ave. and Plymouth Ave. bridges. Before deciding on building the Third Ave. Bridge, city officials considered expanding the Hennepin Ave. Bridge or rebuilding the 1872 10th Ave. Bridge on either side. Just like engineers today, they counted traffic to make the case for a new bridge crossing. Political and design challenges delayed a decision several years.

Alderman McInerny and  others seated in a cableway bucket on the west side of the river
Alderman McInerny and others seated in a cableway bucket on the west side of the river. The cableway bucket was used to transport materials and workers to construction areas on site (1914, Hennepin County Library).
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Gateway Park in Minneapolis
Gateway Park is an example of the City Beautiful movement in Minneapolis which emphasizing radial streets and civic architecture. Gateway Park (razed) was located at Hennepin and Nicollet Avenues near the Third Avenue Bridge (1915, Hennepin County Library).
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There was initial pushback on the idea of a new bridge, especially from businesses along Hennepin, Nicollet and East Hennepin Avenues, who feared a loss of business. However, there was an important need to connect Downtown Minneapolis where government services such as the newly built post office, courthouse, and city hall with the “East Side” or St. Anthony. In 1910, the Minneapolis Civic Commission shared a preliminary City Beautiful Plan, developed by architect Edward H. Bennett.1 City Beautiful was a movement in the late-19th and early 20th-centuries focused on urban planning and construction of beautiful civic spaces to better society. Many of Bennett’s recommendations focused on widening existing streets and creating new diagonal roads to connect sections of the city. He even proposed bridge on Sixth Ave. (although it ultimately was built on Third Ave.). Inspired by Bennett’s City Beautiful plan, the Minneapolis Civic and Commerce Association, a precursor to the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, called for the bridge to be the “first monumental structure of the Minneapolis civic plan.”2 They advocated for a consulting architect to design the bridge and referenced the seven stone bridges of Paris as inspiration. These civic groups were successful in advocating for the project and construction began in 1914.

Design challenges

A stylized photograph highlighted the “s-curved” shape of the bridge

A stylized photograph highlighted the “s-curved” shape of the bridge.
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The Third Ave. Bridge’s elegant reverse “S” curve was developed out of necessity, not aesthetics. In the initial designs, the bridge was to be located on a straight alignment above St. Anthony Falls, but there were concerns that the location could cause damage to the falls because of known weak shale spots in the riverbed. The chief designer for the Third Ave. Bridge was city engineer, Frederick Cappelen, a Norwegian engineer educated in Sweden and Germany who emigrated to the United States in 1880. He also designed the Franklin Ave. Bridge and Prospect Park Water Tower. Cappelen understood the foundation limitations and placed bridge pier locations to avoid dangerous breaks in limestone of the riverbed, which could cause a loss of the falls (and bridge).

Showing reverse S curve design
Showing reverse S curve design (1977, Hennepin County Library).
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Plan and elevation of bridge. Drawing also depicts layout of construction site, including concrete plant and location of timber towers
Plan and elevation of bridge. Drawing also depicts layout of construction site, including concrete plant and location of timber towers (1915 Engineering News).
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Aerial view of St. Anthony Falls and three bridges over the Mississippi. From top to bottom: Hennepin Avenue, Third Avenue, Stone Arch
Aerial view of St. Anthony Falls and three bridges over the Mississippi. From top to bottom: Hennepin Ave., Third Ave., Stone Arch (undated, Hennepin County Library).
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Melan reinforced concrete

One of the reasons the bridge is historically significant is because it reflects the design and engineering of Josef Melan’s reinforcing system. A Melan Arch consists of a number of steel I-beams bent into an arch shape that are then covered in concrete. The bridge was designed and constructed using concrete, a bridge building material used in ancient times but modernized in the late 19th century. Melan’s concrete and steel reinforcement system blended the public’s trust in steel bridge building with the preferred aesthetics of the City Beautiful movement. Other bridges built during this time also were built out of reinforced concrete, including the Franklin Ave. Bridge and Fort Snelling-Mendota Bridge, and are associated with the City Beautiful Movement.

Bridge design

The bridge design includes several distinctive features, look through the pictures and captions below to learn more about them.

A stylized photograph highlighting particular components of the bridge, including the railing, deck, overlook, spandrel, pier, and arch rib

A stylized photograph highlighting particular components of the bridge, including the railing, deck, overlook, spandrel, pier, and arch rib.
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The bridge was designed with multiple overlooks from the bridge deck (one shown in foreground). Overlooks were a feature of the City Beautiful design aesthetic, encouraging visitors to stop and enjoy views of the river and city as they were passing through

The bridge was designed with multiple overlooks from the bridge deck (one shown in foreground). Overlooks were a feature of the City Beautiful design aesthetic, encouraging visitors to stop and enjoy views of the river and city as they were passing through (undated postcard, Hennepin County Library).
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Light poles, sidewalks and railing. The pointed top of the light standard was used for overhead electrical lines for the streetcar
Light poles, sidewalks and railing. The pointed top of the light standard was used for overhead electrical lines for the streetcar (1918, City of Minneapolis).
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The bridge was designed to accommodate elevated rail tracks, supporting the intensive industrial activity along the river. View is where West River Parkway is today
The bridge was designed to accommodate elevated rail tracks, supporting the intensive industrial activity along the river. View is where West River Parkway is today (1917, City of Minneapolis).
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Detail of original bridge railing. This railing was replaced with the Art Deco-style panels and concrete pilasters in the 1930s
Detail of original bridge railing. This railing was replaced with the Art Deco-style panels and concrete pilasters in the 1930s (1920, Minnesota Historical Society).
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Original staircase from bridge’s east approach. This staircase was replaced in 1979
Original staircase from bridge’s east approach. This staircase was replaced in 1979 (1918, City of Minneapolis).
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Construction of the bridge

Construction on the Third Ave. Bridge began in August 1914 by pouring the bridge’s eight piers. To work against the strong current of the falls, workers built steel-sheet cofferdams, an enclosure built in the water to aid in creating a dry area for construction. In 1915, timber falsework, which was used as a mold for the bridge arches, was placed. Crews then assembled the steel arches, constructed the forms, and poured the concrete creating the arch ribs. The crew re-used the same falsework for multiple arch ribs. From here, workers erected spandrels, the deck, railings, and light fixtures. The construction site itself included several systems to aid in the efficient construction of the bridge. See the infographic to learn more about construction methods used in 1914-1918.

A graphic showing the components of bridge construction, including the timber towers, cableway, cable bucket, bridge piers, cofferdam, and railroad tracks

Construction worker
Construction worker (1913 – 1918, Minnesota Historical Society).
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Workers building the bridge falsework
Workers building the bridge falsework (1913-1918, Minnesota Historical Society).
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Construction workers at the concrete plant
Construction workers at the concrete plant (1913-1918, Minnesota Historical Society).
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Arches completed for Spans 8 and 9
Arches completed for Spans 8 and 9 (1910s, Hennepin County Library).
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Showing form work for Pier #5. Falsework was built from timber as the mold for pouring concrete. The first upstream rib was poured on July 8, 1915, and the last upstream rib was poured on August 5. The falsework for the first rib was then struck and moved section by section into place under the center rib. Initially, it took the crews one day to move the falsework but by the last downstream rib on the project, it took only two hours and forty minutes to move

Showing form work for Pier #5. Falsework was built from timber as the mold for pouring concrete. The first upstream rib was poured on July 8, 1915, and the last upstream rib was poured on August 5. The falsework for the first rib was then struck and moved section by section into place under the center rib. Initially, it took the crews one day to move the falsework but by the last downstream rib on the project, it took only two hours and forty minutes to move (1914, Hennepin County Library)3.
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Clearing ice out of Cofferdam #7. The work was continued over the winter, and the engineers took precautions to keep the concrete from freezing. This included not pouring concrete when the air temperature was below zero, covering the forms with tarps, and heating them. The sand and rock bins for the concrete were also heated and the large buckets carrying concrete were dipped in hot water
Clearing ice out of Cofferdam #7. The work was continued over the winter, and the engineers took precautions to keep the concrete from freezing. This included not pouring concrete when the air temperature was below zero, covering the forms with tarps, and heating them. The sand and rock bins for the concrete were also heated and the large buckets carrying concrete were dipped in hot water (1915, Hennepin County Library).
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East side towers completed. Towers were placed on both sides of the river and held up the cableway, for transport of materials and workers to the construction area
East side towers completed. Towers were placed on both sides of the river and held up the cableway, for transport of materials and workers to the construction area (1914, Hennepin County Library).
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Letting water out of cofferdam at Pier #3
Letting water out of cofferdam at Pier #3 (1914, Hennepin County Library).
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Cableway picking up bucket from tramway on east side. The tramway connected the concrete plant with the base of the tower where materials could be delivered to different parts of the site
Cableway picking up bucket from tramway on east side. The tramway connected the concrete plant with the base of the tower where materials could be delivered to different parts of the site (1914, Hennepin County Library).
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Bridge legacy

The Third Ave. Bridge succeeded in connecting downtown Minneapolis with the “East Bank” and ushering in a new chapter of city growth and commercial development. In 1920, with annual ridership of the streetcar system at 138.6 million, the city council directed the Minneapolis Street Railway to route streetcars over the Third Ave. Bridge. Streetcar tracks had been installed during construction of the bridge. The bridge, “the keynote to the plan of rerouting and construction of new [streetcar] lines” soon the Bloomington-Columbia Heights line, the Grand and Monroe lines, and the Bryant and Johnson lines which connected the edges of the city in Northeast with downtown and South Minneapolis. In terms of motor vehicle traffic, by 1946, a traffic study revealed that the Third Ave. Bridge carried an average of 20,122 vehicles daily, which was “more traffic to and from the loop [i.e.: downtown] than any other artery.”4 For comparison, the bridge carried an average of 14,500 vehicles daily in 2017. Construction of I-35W, completed in 1969, alleviated growing traffic congestion concerns over the Third Ave. Bridge. With continued and growing traffic use the Third Ave. Bridge naturally needed occasional repair, with efforts occurring in the 1930s, 1970s and early 2000s. The current bridge rehabilitation project that began in May 2020 will repair the bridge to meet current safety and engineering needs while preserving its important features, integrity, and historic significance.

The crowd on the bridge and the American flags would indicate this photo was taken the day of the bridge's grand opening, Flag Day, 1918

Written on bottom of photo: "Where the Father of Waters turns the wheels of the world". The crowd on the bridge and the American flags would indicate this photo was taken the day of the bridge's grand opening, Flag Day, 1918 (1918, Hennepin County Library).
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Bridge showing updated art deco railing detail completed in the 1930s
Bridge showing updated art deco railing detail completed in the 1930s (1960s, Hennepin County Library).
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Public Works Administration work on Third Ave Bridge. This work included replacing the railings and building a barrier between the roadway and sidewalks
Public Works Administration work on Third Ave Bridge. This work included replacing the railings and building a barrier between the roadway and sidewalks (1930s, Hennepin County Library).
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Looking west at traffic on the Third Avenue Bridge. Note streetcar tracks and overhead wires attached to the light posts powering the streetcar
Looking west at traffic on the Third Avenue Bridge. Note streetcar tracks and overhead wires attached to the light posts powering the streetcar (1948, Minnesota Historical Society).
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Streetcar on bridge
Streetcar on bridge (1951, Minnesota Historical Society).
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Interested in more Third Ave. Bridge history?

The special collections of the Hennepin County Library and Minnesota Historical Society have several digital photograph collections of the construction and bridge over time. Additionally, MnDOT’s Historic Bridges website for the Third Ave. Bridge has technical reports available for reference. MnDOT is also currently drafting a National Register Nomination for the bridge to further preserve its legacy.

MnDOT is hosting virtual presentations with a MnDOT historian in Fall 2020. Sign up for email updates to stay in the loop!

This text has been adapted from the following source:
Historic Features Report for Bridge 2440 Rehabilitation Design (3rd Avenue Bridge), MnDOT, 2017.

1The Civic Commission was an unofficial body organized to create a city plan. See, Saint Anthony Falls Heritage Board, Minneapolis Riverfront as Birth Place and First Place, 2008, 47.

2“Competition of Experts or Employment of Consulting Engineer Held Advisable in Constructing the Third Avenue South Bridge," Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, July 12, 1912.

3Richter, “A 2,223-Ft. Concrete-Arch Bridge Built on Reverse Curve,” 1271.

4“Third Avenue Bridge Busiest,” Minneapolis Tribune, July 4, 1946.