Watermark

 

If you lived in the Minneapolis area in the summer of 2007, no doubt you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing in the moments after 6:05 pm on August 1. I was sitting in my living room, when my husband called from work about 6:20 and asked me if I had heard that the “35W bridge over the Mississippi had collapsed” and I remember sitting down on the sofa, stunned, trying to turn on the TV. Those initial moments were filled with confusion, as I thought he meant the bridge over the river in Bloomington. It wasn’t until I started to see the news reports that I realized it was the bridge near downtown Minneapolis, and along with thousands of others became mesmerized by the horrific images on the screen. Little did I know that among the victims was a distant cousin who I had never met, and now I never would, and a young woman who would soon have an impact on my life, but I wouldn’t realize it until years later.

That August day was like many others, hot at 92 degress and a bit muggy.  Picture yourself in the car driving home from work, or to some evening event. Perhaps you’re speaking to a loved on on the phone, or listening to music. You might have the window open in hopes of a breeze if your AC isn’t working, or if you were lucky and it is, the windows all up. Traffic is moving slowly since 4 of the 8 lanes are closed for bridge resurfacing and there is quite a bit of construction equipment about. Suddenly, you feel a slight jolt, a little bump, and wonder what it is, and then, without warning, the road under you is just gone and you’re free falling. You’re in your car, plunging toward the Mississippi River, along with other cars trucks, concrete, steel girders, rebar, gusset plates, dust…The sound is defeaning, then silence. You’re under water, or perhaps on the remainder of the bridge at an odd angle, or pinned under concrete or another car. In the water you desperately try to get out of your seatbelt and then out of your car, in the murky water. Some did, 13 did not; among them Peter Hausmann who initially made it out of his car, then dove under water again to try and help a woman and her child get out of theirs, and was pinned underwater by debris by her car.

That fall, after the collapse, I was working at a health insurance company here in the Twin Cities as a nurse case manager, and I can still remember being told to do whatever we could to help the victims. Normal rules were waived, dollar limits on services or lifetime limits, even waiving out of network restrictions.  We were given permission to go above and beyond what we normally did, to ensure their care went as smoothly as we possibly could with the least amount of stress to them given that they had already endured so much. I was involved in the care of a young woman who had been injured in the collapse, and due to the nature of her injuries I ended up speaking with her mother about her care rather than her. Her mother and I spoke fairly often that fall, which was good and bad…bad that they had to speak to me at all, but good in that they had someone on the other end of the line who could help. My recollection is that when I first started talking to her mom, there was a lot of frustration on her part because of the issues and roadblocks they had encountered, one of which had to do with being billed for her daughter seeing out of network doctors at the hospital she was sent to. Keep in mind she wasn’t given a choice where she went, people were triaged to hospitals based on their injuries and how many people had already gone to other hospitals. She also had no choice in the doctor she saw. So why should they have to worry about paying extra, when the choice was taken away? The answer was, they shouldn’t, and ultimately I worked to make sure they didn’t. That’s just one example of the kinds of things we helped with.

Last summer marked the 10th anniversary of the collapse, and as we approached August 1 there were the expected stories on our news channels, in the papers, and on the radio. Stories from survivors, and from the families and friends of those who didn’t survive, making sure that their loved ones aren’t forgotten by recounting wonderful stories about them. One of those stories came from the family of Peter Hausmann, a man who who I later learned from my mom was a cousin of my dad’s. (Between my mom and dad, they once counted all their first cousins – there were over 200! It’s not surprising we didn’t know some of them when you start getting to the second cousins, the “once removeds” and so on.) I don’t know exactly which level of cousin they were, but it wasn’t first cousin, I know that. After seeing a video about him on WCCO -TV, I wish I could have met him. He seems like he was a wonderful father, husband and man of faith, and I expect he’s very proud of his family and how they have carried on.

I also found myself wondering what ever happened to the young woman that I had helped to provide care for 10 years ago. I found out she is doing amazingly well, and is living her dream – in New York. She’s acting, singing and dancing in the theater there, doing what she always wanted to do. I don’t know how to explain what it felt like when I learned that, except to say that my heart feels so full of happiness for her. Now, seeing her photo, her face is full of joy and enthusiasm, of wonder and beauty.  When I saw her picture, my chest filled up and I started to cry. It was an amazing moment, knowing that she’s on her way to fulfilling her dream,  and I think about the fact there is that one brief moment in time that her dream almost didn’t get to happen – perhaps 20 or 30 feet in either direction and she may have died, but she didn’t. She inspires me, when I’m not sure if I can meet a challenge, or if I want to stretch myself. I just think about her, and I’m reminded what determination can accomplish. The most amazing part is, I don’t think she was ever aware of me, and certainly has no idea that 10 years on she is still having an impact.

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So many of us were impacted in one way or another, forever marked by the water: some literally, but most, invisibly. Today, a memorial stands near the site of the collapse, in memory of those who died that day. A granite slab with the names of those who died bears the following inscription :

“Our lives are not only defined by what happens, but by how we act in the face of it, not only by what life brings us, but by what we bring to life. Selfless actions and compassion create enduring community out of tragic events.” 

The Involuntary Adventurer

For what I hope is short lived I have found myself with a bit more free time on my hands this summer, but while I do have that time my husband and I have decided we’re going to try very hard to do some of those things we’ve been saying we want to do. Yesterday we made good on our promise to each other, and set out on our first adventure to downtown Minneapolis and the Mill City Museum and Mill Ruins Park. The Mill City Museum is located on the Mississippi River on the east side of downtown, and tells the story of the history of when this beautiful city of lakes (and a very big river) was the capital of flour milling. From the late 1800’s into the mid 1900’s in the birthplace of General Mills and Pillsbury, the mills on the banks of the Mississippi produced the largest percentage of the worlds flour, and by 1915-16 was producing 20 million dry barrels annually. (Total geek that I am, today we measure flour production in cwts, which is a hundred weight, or 100 lb, and a barrel had about 196 lb of flour. That’s about 3920 million cwts annually. Minnesota’s production in the first quarter of 2017 was 6.86 million cwts, putting us 4th in the nation.)

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Mpls milling district from the Mississippi River, approx 1907. The Washburn A Mill is about in the center. The tall spire with the round clock looks like it’s part of it, but it’s actually behind it. Note the original Stone Arch Bridge on the right, and the railroad trestles in front of the mills. Some trestle remains exist in the ruins today. Photo from MN Historical Society

The city was knicknamed “The Mill City” and even had a professional basketball team for a time, the Minneapolis Millers for those of you old enough to remember them. (As a kid, I’d heard of the Millers, but always thought “what an odd name for a team, I wonder why they called them that?” I never thought to ask my parents. Now of course, 30 seconds on the internet and there’s your answer!) One of the things makes the museum and the park so interesting is that the old mill is the site of 2 fires, and the park has a portion of the mill ruins that were excavated.

The first Washburn A Mill, built in 1874, “was leveled by a flour dust explosion that claimed 18 lives. That explosion and the resulting fire destroyed much of the riverfront business area, cutting Minneapolis’ milling capacity in half.

The A Mill was rebuilt by 1880, with state-of-the-art machinery that permitted safer operations while producing higher quality flour. At the time it was the largest and most technologically advanced mill in the world, featuring new automatic steel rollers instead of traditional millstones.  During its heyday, it was said that the mill ground enough flour to make 12 million loaves of bread a day“. Mill City Museum History

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1991 Washburn A Mill Fire, Courtesy of MN Historical Society

As production shifted to other parts of the country, mills began to close and in 1965 all of the remaining mills in downtown Minneapolis were as well. The building sat empty, and in February 1991, fire broke out in the abandoned building nearly destroying it a second time. Since then efforts have been made to safeguard what remains, and excavate some of the ruins of the old original mill.

 

We had wanted to see it for quite some time and because much of it is outside, we waited until summer to go. In retrospect I have to say that was good only in terms of ease of walking around, however while the museum is good and has a ton of information, the ruins were rather disappointing. Take a look at the photos below; you’ll see what I mean.

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©2017 Beth Younker

 

The photo on the left is one I found from another blogger on a general Google search (I’ve provided a link to her blog so she gets credit!) taken 10/26/2010, and below is one I took 6/20/2017. You can see how much overgrowth of weeds has been allowed to happen at the site. It’s been virtually taken over by the weeds, trees, and foliage, to the point that there was so much of the ruins that I didn’t even realize existed until I found the other photograph online! For example there is some sort of large round object about halfway up and toward the right side in the left photo, and if I blow up mine and know where to look I can just barely find it.The three windows are nearly obscured, and just off the end of the walkway is a large slab of something. In her photo it’s clearly a piece of structure but in mine it’s almost not noticed. So our visit was interesting, but rather underwhelming, primarily because you just couldn’t see much at all. In addition, I’ve been trying to find information online that has diagrams showing me what it was I was seeing. Don’t get me wrong, there is some information on the small information stations located along the parkway in the area. Screen Shot 2017-06-21 at 5.30.03 PMBut the information isn’t as clear or informative as it could be. One example is where a sign stated that “the tailraces are visible” and it had a picture of tailraces that may have looked a little like this to the right:

 

Now honestly, does anyone know what a tailrace is? I sure didn’t! And I sure couldn’t figure it out just by looking at the picture. Was it the part sticking out? Was it the part going in? Was it the path over the whole thing? Well, here’s your vocabulary word for today. The tailrace is the place where the water comes out from the flume from the mill,  those little small canal-like areas. Here is how those same tailraces appeared yesterday noted by the yellow arrow, from a slightly different perspective.

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©2017 Mike Younker

I also mentioned earlier in the blog by that very first photo, that there were remnants of the train trestles still present. You can see them here. They are the bits of rusted iron that are sticking up just to the left of the walking path on the right side of the photo.
Trying to find online maps and diagrams has been fruitless, which is frustrating. I’m not sure why that wouldn’t be available, as it seems it should be relatively easy information to get and provide. Just figuring out what the railroad trestles were was almost impossible until I stumbled on something in someone else’s blog.

I’m not sure if funding for the park has been cut, or if it’s deemed to dangerous to try to get in and weed the ruins or what the issue is. I can say that it was a less than fulfilling experience, and I hope that the Minneapolis Park Board will take a hard look at this. I know in recent years their stance has been to let a lot of areas go back to natural, such as the area around Lake Nokomis, which may work for some areas. Near the ruins there was even a sign indicating that there is work to bring back some of the natural prairie grasses to the hillside. In this case, if in fact they are allowing the mill ruins to revert to their natural state, this certainly means a loss of our rich milling heritage as the ruins are swallowed up by nature and will soon be gone for good.