Metzen honored with memorial at Swing Bridge Park


Jim Metzen

Hannah Burlingame/Review • A new memorial is in place at Rock Island Swing Bridge Park. It honors the late Jim Metzen, who served Inver Grove Heights during his time as a state senator. Metzen is credited with helping save the bridge from demolition.

Those walking the pier at Rock Island Swing Bridge Park in Inver Grove Heights will notice a new memorial bench at the end in honor of someone who helped keep the bridge alive. 

The late Sen. Jim Metzen, who passed away in 2016 after a battle with lung cancer, was a “significant player” in protecting the pier from demolition, says Inver Grove Heights Parks and Recreation Director Eric Carlson.

Jim Huffman, who was previously on the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, worked with Metzen to save the old swing bridge from the wrecking ball.

“Me and Metzen became kind of like twins on this project,” Huffman says.

Opened to rail traffic back in 1894, the Rock Island Swing Bridge was designed for the South St. Paul Beltline Railroad. Carlson says legend has it that in 1934, gangster John Dillinger used the bridge to escape authorities. 

The Rock Island Railroad closed the bridge in 1982 and the J.A.R Company began operating it as a privately owned toll facility. 

“It was constructed as a double-decker bridge, so it was always open to pedestrian and horse and buggy on the bottom level, and trains were on the top level,” Carlson says. 

In 1999, the Minnesota Department of Transportation closed the bridge completely because of its deterioration. 

In 2008, an eastern portion of the bridge collapsed. This prompted both Dakota and Washington counties to begin demolishing what was left, but in 2010, Carlson says, Metzen and then Rep. Joe Atkins instituted a moratorium on the demolition.

“This allowed the City of Inver Grove Heights the opportunity to secure grant funding for [the bridge’s] eventual reuse as a pedestrian pier,” Carlson says. 

The bridge reopened with its new use in 2011, though by then the Washington County side was gone and it was just a single level.

Huffman says he pushed Metzen to get everything done because he wanted to save the bridge — he was adamant about keeping it for future generations. 

Carlson says Metzen was instrumental in getting state funding and helping with cooperation from MnDOT, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and other agencies, so the city could turn the bridge into a 670-foot recreational pier, allowing the public to see “one-of-a-kind views of the Mississippi River.”

Without the state funding source, Carlson says the city would have had no way to take on the project. 

 

A bridge worth saving

Atkins, who is now the Dakota County commissioner representing District 4, says a resident came to his doorstep to talk to him about saving the bridge, which at the time was an eyesore. Atkins himself was skeptical at first.

Once he was on board, Atkins called Metzen, who Atkins describes as someone who was very practical, to talk about a possible moratorium to save the historic structure.

“The first conversation was a fairly practical one about who was going to scream at us,” Atkins says, adding the county, state and even federal government all wanted to tear the bridge down.

A lot of credit needs to be given to Mayor George Tourville and the Inver Grove Heights City Council at that time, Atkins says — with the moratorium in place, no one wanted the bridge, and saving it only got legs once the city stepped up to take ownership.

Atkins says there were two pivotal points in the effort to save it, one of which was Metzen agreeing to the moratorium with only days to spare before the bridge was slated to come down.

The second came after the moratorium passed, which gave them a two-year window to figure out how to save it. 

Atkins and Metzen met with every player involved at the Dakota County Western Service Center. Atkins says he and Metzen were not the most popular people at the table, which included people from the city, county, various state agencies and Army Corps of Engineers.

Atkins says the meeting started with everyone telling the pair why it was such a bad idea.

“Finally, Jim just stopped and said, ‘Everybody stop here for a second. I’m tired of hearing all of the reasons why we can’t do this or why it’s a bad idea. Tell me how we can do this’” Atkins recalls. 

The statement caused a seismic shift in the tone of the meeting, and all of a sudden people started talking about different ways the bridge possibly could be kept, Atkins says.

Atkins says if either of these moments hadn’t happened, the bridge would have been gone. Metzen led the efforts to get additional dollars to help the city put in a number of amenities.

 

Honoring a friend

Huffman, who Atkins says was the biggest cheerleader of the project, says the idea of creating a memorial at the bridge came because Metzen did a lot for the city of Inver Grove Heights, in terms of bonding money and accomplishing things like keeping the Swing Bridge and Heritage Village Park. 

With the help of Rick Ogera and a few others, the memorial became a reality. 

“He was a friend of mine. I miss him every day ... I thought it was good to honor him,” says Huffman, who Metzen nicknamed “Huffy.”

Atkins says a memorial at Swing Bridge is fitting for Metzen because it wouldn’t exist without his efforts, and there isn’t a place in Inver Grove Heights that’s more of an attraction for both visitors and locals.

“It’s a neat way to memorialize somebody like Jim,” Atkins says, “who spent his whole life thinking of about ways to make our area better.”

 

– Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienews.com

 

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