The Bridges of Otter Tail County

The bridges of Otter Tail County. Nobody seems to know how many there once were. The State did not tally bridges on county or township roads. The County did not keep track of township bridges. The railroads knew only their own. But with two major river systems, innumerable creeks, and nearly a thousand lakes, there were once several hundred, stone, steel and wood, many dating back to pioneer times. But today there are very few. Most narrow, rattling, and picturesque rural bridges have gone the way of the wagons and flivvers that once crossed over them.

It all started in the mid 1970’s. After a series of spectacular and deadly accidents on East Coast bridges, the Federal government began funnelling hundreds of millions of dollars to state highway departments for renovation or replacement. It worked like this: State engineers made annual inspections. Any bridge not making the grade could be brought up to standards with state and federal aid. Otter Tail County and various townships embarked upon an ambitious campaign to replace substandard structures, usually single–lane steel–truss bridges, with concrete or steel culverts, sometimes at the rate of four or five each year.

A culvert has certain advantages over a bridge. It is cheaper. It is stronger. It has no railings to collect snow. But the moiling and filling during installation is hard on a fragile aquatic environment. And once installed, a culvert is a challenge to navigation and an affront to the eye.

The replacement of the circa 1926 Schmidt Bridge over the Otter Tail River on County Road 3 south of Edwards was completed in 1996. Previously, there was a sign on the approach that read "Trucks Must Not Meet on Bridge." And indeed they could not––unless both wanted their door handles peeled off. Two and a half million dollars later the road is wider and safer––for vehicles at least––but something definitely has been lost. County Road 3 has been recently designated an "Otter Tail Scenic Byway." Unfortunately, it is no longer as scenic as it once was.

The story of the Waterstreet Bridge over the Otter Tail River in Maine Township has a somewhat happier ending. As early as 1970, the county engineer was eyeing the bridge. It was too narrow, too old, too weak. It would squeak, groan, and shudder whenever a pickup crossed. Clearly, culvertization was in order. Enter Joe and Elizabeth Merz from rural Underwood. Recently arrived from Fargo, the Merzes saw something in the old bridge that their neighbors took for granted. Joe took his concerns before the County Commission, Elizabeth began organizing The Waterstreet Bridge Preservation Society.

Subsequent research turned up some interesting tidbits. The bridge was named for tapper, trader, and early resort owner Joe Waterstreet. It’s construction in 1895 linked Perham with Fergus Falls via a dirt road that once saw the passage of stage coaches. It was a Pratt Open Truss design, supposed to "self adjust" under load––hence the eerie racket whenever a vehicle passed. The Minnesota Historical Society took note and suggested the bridge be nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.

Joe and Elizabeth Merz’s efforts to block demolition of the Waterstreet Bridge were not universally appreciated. Since many members of the preservation society lived in Fergus Falls, the Maine Town Board resented what they deemed outside interference in local affairs. The County Commission was outraged anyone would question their judgement. Since the State Historical Society was on record opposing the project, one commissioner even went so far as to threaten to cut off county funding for the Otter Tail County Historical Museum, thus forcing its closure.

But in the end, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers had the final word. Since the Otter Tail River was a "navigable stream" the Corps had to issue a permit before work could begin. Joe and Elizabeth Merz put together documents urging denial. The Corps was operating under new guidelines that mandated a consideration of "esthetic effects on the human environment." Accordingly, the permit was denied in 1981. The county and township begrudgingly complied, repairing the bridge instead of replacing it with a culvert.

The lessons learned at the Waterstreet Bridge were applied several years later, to repair and preserve a truss bridge at Phelp’s Mill. And bridge preservation efforts continue. In 1997, Otter Tail County plans to remove a highway bridge over the old Northern Pacific Railroad in Dalton. The steel beams were among the longest ever produced by Bethlehem Steel. County Engineer Rick West would like to see the trusses salvaged, refurbished, and reused, perhaps as a footbridge in an area park.

~Roger Pinckney