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Jay Cooke Swinging Bridge celebrates its centennial with free park day, summer of events

The landmark Swinging Bridge in Jay Cooke State Park
The landmark Swinging Bridge spans the St. Louis River in Jay Cooke State Park near Carlton. It's seen here in summer 2019.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

For generations, a highlight of any visit to northern Minnesota’s Jay Cooke State Park has been a squeaking, swaying walk across the rushing St. Louis River on the storied Swinging Bridge.

This year, the bridge celebrates its centennial — but the wood metal and stone it’s made of now is not nearly as old. First built in 1924 by the U.S. Forest Service of ropes and logs, the bridge has been rebuilt or reconstructed five times over the last 100 years.

Major flooding in the Arrowhead in 2012 destroyed the Swinging Bridge and the storm’s devastation has stayed in the region’s collective memory.

The difference from bridges falling in the past?

“The odd thing for us as staff was that this time there was social media. So there was interaction, right, with local people tweeting and Facebooking … that the bridge was gone,” Kris Hiller, an interpretive naturalist for the park in Carlton, recalled on MPR News’ Morning Edition Thursday. “The staff wasn’t in the park because we had evacuated. And so we thought we had lost the bridge overnight. And when we came back in the morning, news helicopters told us that the good news … the bridge was still there, it was just underwater, but twisted and mangled.”

The historic storm forced the St. Louis River to reach a historic high, roads around the region were destroyed, animals trapped in the Duluth Zoo were killed and Jay Cooke stayed closed for several months.

The Swinging Bridge got its fifth life in 2013; its past redemptions were in 1934-1935, 1950, 1953 and repairs in the ‘70s-’80s. 1950 was the second-largest flood to hit the park, Hiller said, and comparable to the damage in 2012. It’s the deep meaning of the bridge to Minnesotans that keeps inspiring its reincarnation.

“I think it’s an emotional experience. Some people have this fear of it because of the movement,” Hiller said. “It brings joy, it brings fear. And I think it really just melds into peoples’ minds because of that.”

“I don’t know how many people I meet … in their 40s or their 50s. And they’ll tell me ‘Oh, I remember, when I walked across the bridge when I was a little kid, and all there was was ropes to hold on to.’ Well, we haven’t had a rope bridge since 1940. But that’s their experience that they have in their minds that, you know, it’s there,” Hiller said.

In honor of the bridge’s big birthday, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is celebrating with a summer of educational programming and events for park visitors. It all kicks off with Free Park Day on Saturday. Visitors can enjoy any of the 64 state parks and nine recreation areas at no cost and without a vehicle permit.