From BIG RIVER, December 1998, by John Sagan.
On March 14, 1882, the 47th Congress was in its first session. Among the many bills up for consideration was House Bill H.R. 4440, granting permission to the Chippewa Valley and Superior Railway Company to construct a railway bridge " … across the Mississippi River extending from a point between Wabasha and Reads Landing in Minnesota to a point below the mouth of the Chippewa River in Wisconsin."
The bridge was built with a pontoon section in the middle of the channel that could be floated out of the way to allow the many steamboats, workboats and log rafts to pass through, then floated back so that trains could cross. The pontoons were built in 1882 at Peters' Boatyard in Wabasha and then floated up to Reads Landing by steamboat. On November 9, 1882, the railroad line and bridge were deeded to the Chicago Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Company.
Frequent floods and ice jams damaged the bridge, even though it was protected by "ice breakers"—huge pointed timbers that jutted out from the sides to deflect ice and river debris.
The original 400-foot-long pontoon section was replaced in 1891 with a new pontoon the same length. In 1907 it was again rebuilt 396 feet long and 40 feet wide. In 1931 the pontoon was rebuilt with creosoted timers the same length and 50 feet wide. The 1929 edition of the Bridge Book Record says "The East approach consisted of 64 timber pile trestle spans 16' long for a total of 1,011' built in 1926, one span girder type 'B' 40' long built in 1907, one span pontoon 396' long built in 1931, 17 spans timber pile trestle 16' long for a total length of 258' built in 1926, one span pony truss 105' long built in 1914. The West approach consisted of 75 spans timber pile trestle each 14' long for a total length of 1050' re driven in 1939."
The pontoon section was floated out of the way with chains drawn by a steam engine that kept steam up 24 hours a day. Three shifts of bridge tenders kept the bridge working to accommodate all the traffic. The pontoon was pivoted on a 10-inch, concrete-filled steel pipe.
As the trains crossed over the pontoon, it sank 14 inches. To prevent derailing, the tracks between the pontoon and the bridge ends were hinged. According to one observer, "It is a queer sight to one standing on the barge to see the train sliding down the hill on one side and climbing up a hill on the other."
In 1946 there were only a few "barge-bridges" in the world, with the Reads Landing pontoon the largest of all.
Sometimes the pontoon section was unhinged before the onset of winter and towed down to Wabasha to protect it from ice damage. On January 2, 1932, after a long thaw, the steamer Aquila was taken from her winter quarters in Fountain City Bay, in Wisconsin, and went to Wabasha to tow the pontoon bridge back to Reads Landing. Another time, just before the river was closed, the Harry R. Harris towed the Reads Landing Railroad Bridge from its place to a point a short distance up the Black River at
La Crosse, Wis.
In the spring of 1936 an ice jam broke the pontoon loose, and caused considerable damage to her ice breakers. The pontoon was repaired.
An ice jam broke the timber pile trestle on the East approach on April 13, 1951. Two days later the chain on the pontoon was broken and the pontoon could not be closed. Repairs on the chain were in progress when on April 16, at about 10 a.m., the west 32 spans of the east approach were completely washed out by high water and ice. At 4:45 that afternoon, the pontoon was unhinged for the last time and floated down to the harbor in Wabasha.
Later in the year the railroad asked permission to abandon the structure. It was removed sometime after 1952 by the Brennan Bros. Contractors, then of Lansing, Iowa. A Wabasha salvage company bought the pontoon and removed the iron girders and many other parts, then sold it to Lake City, Minn., where it became a fishing float and pier.
Some years later a man named Clem Hines bought the pontoon and brought it out to Cook's Valley Road, where he salvaged as much as he could, according to Ted Markey of Wabasha, who says that the bridge parts can still be seen along Cook's Valley Road.
Snow Plowing Memory
The Milwaukee Road
This is a true story about plowing the Chippewa Valley Line in Wisconsin February 1971. It came from retired Milwaukee Road engineer Richard Thompson. Arlyn Colby of Barron, WI had a chance to talk with Mr. Thompson before his passing. This story is in Richard's own words.
I remember that cold Saturday morning on February 7th, 1971 when our train #561 which had become Extra West arrived in Eau Claire (Wisconsin) with engines 576 and 594. We had been called at 1:15 PM at Winona (Minnesota) on the afternoon of February 6th and had departed at 4:25 PM with an old tender type wedge snowplow on the point. We pushed that plow for 38 miles down the Burlington mainline to Trevino where we departed the mainline and got onto our old CV Line and headed for Durand and arrived there at 8:25 PM and started to plow out the crossings in town. The City of Durand had plowed their city streets and pushed all the snow onto our tracks. Bill Westmark, our Trainmaster, got on top of the plow and held onto the safety grab irons and would give me big Hi-Ball signs to really give the engines the throttle and push fast over the crossing. On one of the passes through town, Bill’s eye glasses fell off from the snow flying around. I chuckled to myself. Well, we all went to supper at the local café and then departed Durand at 9:50 PM for Red Cedar, the next stop where we would set the plow out, about 7 miles ahead. Trainmaster Bill Westmark had been talking to us enroute if we (our crew) would work on Sunday, the next day, so they could get the Menomonie line opened again for business. Sunday was the assignments rest day on the job. We were all tired and wanted a day off. Well, Bill talked us into working. He said that he would buy us all lunch. A customer on the Menomonie line wanted his car load of lumber delivered by rail. The lumber car had been sitting for six weeks. The R.R. Company told him that they would transload the lumber onto a truck and deliver the lumber, but the old customer said “NO!, I paid for the lumber to be delivered by rail and that’s the way it’s going to be!” So we set out the plow at Red Cedar and continued onto Eau Claire and tied up early Sunday morning at 1:20 AM. We really tied up at 3:30 AM. I remember for some unknown reason we had changed it two hours shorter. I think that someone on the crew wanted to start earlier the next day,
well, the same day!
We all decided to go to work at 12:30 PM Sunday afternoon. I remember that we departed with three ALCO locomotives number 576, 594, and 578 and a boxcar type snow flanger and a train of mostly empties. Leaving Eau Claire we could not double head two locomotives over bridges M198 and 194. We stopped and I took the first engine across and then the second. Kenny Lindow, my fireman, came with the third engine and train. We put everything back together and continued on our way. We did some flanging enroute. Wisconsin had a full crew law and that’s why we had a fireman. A fireman had to be on any locomotive over 90,000 lbs. We had Herb, the old section foreman along, operating the flanger. We would blow the airhorn to let Herb know if we were coming up on any close clearances so he could get the flanger’s wings in.
We finally reached Red Cedar Jct. and then cut off our train to clear the line to Menomonie. I took two locomotives and ran up to Red Cedar to pick up the plow and we changed ends on the diesels and headed back to Red Cedar Jct., pushing the plow. We switched the flanger behind the third engine and I started up the Menomonie line, pushing the old plow. It was getting dark and it was hard to see ahead of the plow. Ken, my fireman, followed behind me with his engine and flanger. My cab was full of section men who would be snow shovelers and switch cleaners. I remember telling the fireman to keep back a safe distance so he wouldn’t run into me. Ken always had a smile on his face. He was a good guy. We crossed the first bridge and continued pushing the plow. The plowing got very tough at times. I would stop every so often and have the head brakeman walk ahead to see how things looked, because I couldn’t see anything from my window box and my head hanging out the window. The headlight on the snowplow stopped working at times. Some wire plug-in would work its way out. We were virtually shoving blind most of the time and finally got to Dunnville and the section men would get out and clean the switches. We then would plow out the tracks and continued the rest of the way to Downsville, Milepost 7, and then Menomonie at Milepost 15.9. We had encountered a lot of snow along the line. No train had been up the branch for 6 weeks, the conductor said. I remember that there was an old abandoned dark red engine house at Menomonie. We did our plowing there. I changed ends on the diesels and then headed back to Red Cedar Jct. I pulled the plow backwards out of Menomonie as there was no place to turn it. Ken came behind us with the flanger and car of lumber and spotted the car at the lumber company. Man, it was cold outside. The temperature was 24 degrees below zero. We arrived back at the junction and ran up the line to Red Cedar and set the snowplow out. The old plow had did her job and made the lumberman happy. We then coupled onto my fireman’s engine and train and
cut the air in and started to pump air. We finally got the air and then departed for Durand where we tied up. We had put in a long day of hard work and were ready to go home. Trainmaster Westmark had called for another crew to relieve us as we were at our 14-hour service law. I remember that I was relieved by engineer Gordon Rath. He was an older hoghead. They had taken him and his crew off a layover at LaCrosse and drove them to our train at Durand. I remember hearing later that that crew had only made it as far as Winona Jct. and ran out of time and had to be relieved by the Winona yard crew. Our crew deadheaded by auto from Durand back to Eau Claire and then tied up at 2:30 AM, 13 hours 15 minutes on duty.