Union workers joined residents on both sides of the St. Croix River, as well as lawmakers from Minnesota and Wisconsin, in celebrating the Aug. 2 opening of the long-awaited “St. Croix Crossing” bridge south of Stillwater.
An estimated 2,500 people, gathered on the bridge’s approach ramp along Highway 36 in Oak Park Heights, watched Governors Mark Dayton and Scott Walker cut a ceremonial ribbon and declare the 5,000-foot extradosed bridge would open to four lanes of traffic later that night.
The $646 million construction project, Dayton said, supported “jobs for more than 3,000 people from Minnesota and Wisconsin” over the four-plus years it took to complete. They include Lowell Schmoeckel, a member of Operating Engineers Local 49 who was a fixture on the St. Croix Crossing jobsite since groundbreaking.
“I was kind of a like a floating truck driver,” Schmoeckel said. “I delivered all the material to the piers.”
A resident of Stillwater, Schmoeckel said he feels a unique sense of pride in having worked on the project. “The St. Croix Valley is a beautiful area, and the bridge fits right in,” he said. “It isn’t just some beams they threw up and called it a bridge.”
It’s also going to ease traffic in his hometown. The new span replaces the 80-year-old Stillwater Lift Bridge, the cause of frequent traffic congestion downtown Stillwater. The new bridge, about a mile downriver, is designed to carry more than twice the vehicle traffic.
Schmoeckel was one of more than 150 members of Operating Engineers Local 49 who worked on the bridge, business agent Tom Olson said.
“Being an all-union project, we know that area-standard wages were paid to all the employees,” Olson said. “They all made a good wage, they all had good benefits and they all made a good living.”
Brian Aske, Local 49’s apprenticeship coordinator, said about 15 of the union’s apprentices worked on the site. Barb Pecks, a business representative for the Carpenters union, said the bridge created opportunities for several women beginning careers in the Building Trades to gain valuable experience on the jobsite, including two piledrivers from her local.
“Having a consistent place to work outside of the school is very important,” Pecks said. “It was fun to watch their progress as they built their skills.”
“Some started their apprenticeships on this project,” Aske added. “Some graduated from their apprenticeships on this project.”
At least one worker retired on the project, too. Carpenters Local 322 member Lenny Valento said the 18 months he spent on the jobsite before retiring “just flew by.” Every day, he said, seemed to pose a new challenge he’d rarely encountered on other projects, from river currents and swirling winds to bitter cold and extreme heat.
“Safety was a priority,” Valento said. “You had to be conscious of where you were, especially on a project this size.”
Someday, Valento hopes to show his grandkids the bridge he helped build. But for the time being, he looks forward to fishing walleye off the bridge’s piers.
“It’s the one thing I thought about while I was working here,” Valento said. “I take a lot of pride being out here. It’s why I came here today. It was an honor to be on this kind of project … I’m getting a high just looking at it.”