La Crosse bridge collapse

Spectators line the shore after the Interstate 90 bridge collapsed when an automobile struck a corner girder on Aug. 9, 1935.

file photo

When the I-35 bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River on Aug. 1, 2007, it put in motion the events that resulted in a new bridge across the Mississippi River at Winona nine years later.

Seventy-two years earlier, almost to the day, the interstate bridge at La Crosse plunged into the Mississippi, an event that resulted in a new bridge across the river seven years later.

“I heard it when it went down,” E.C. Dickerman, a La Crosse garage attendant, told the Winona Republican-Herald. “It was sort of a dull thud, then a splash. I thought a boat hit the bridge ... I ran out and saw the bridge in the river.”

A Gateway Transfer truck loaded with about eight tons of silk fabric rolled across the bridge about 1:30 a.m. Aug. 9, 1935. Ten minutes later an Auburn sedan with two couples returning from the Bon Ton night club in La Crescent approached the span.

“I was driving about 30 or 40 miles an hour and just as I reached the bridge the car skidded into the first girder,” the driver, Capt. Fisher F. Blinn, told the Republican-Herald. “As soon as we hit it the span went down and the car fell into the river. I believe we went down with the span.”

Blinn said the front windows of the sedan were open. He crawled out the driver’s side window, then managed to pull the front seat passenger, Marceline Patro, out the other. He helped Patro, who was injured and bleeding badly, swim to a bridge girder where they clung, waiting for rescue.

The couple in the back seat were not so fortunate. Francis and Ethel Landrieau were trapped in the vehicle and drowned.

A camper at nearby Pettibone Park was witness to the collapse. “There was a big crash,” Louise Koenig, of Milwaukee, said. She described a blue streak flashing across the sky as electric transmission lines between La Crosse and La Crescent shorted out as “the bridge seemed to fold up and sink down.”

She ran to the river and, seeing the car in the water, “I took off my dress, jumped into the river, swam to the car and tried to get the care door open, but the current was so swift I had to give up,” she said. “I am sure when I got to the car the man in the rear seat was still living. A short time later the car seemed to sink farther into the river, and soon it disappeared from sight except for a small portion of the spare tire.”

The police arrived in a boat, Koenig said, and helped Blinn and Patro off the beam. The campers went onto the roadway to flag down approaching motorists, stopping one La Crescent driver speeding along at 70 mph just short of where the bridge no longer was.

About 135 feet of the 1,000-foot-long bridge had sagged 40 feet into the Mississippi. La Crescent was without electricity or telephone service, the lines from La Crosse severed. Traffic backed up on both sides of the fallen span as motorists and truckers contemplated a 30-mile detour either to the bridge at Lansing, Iowa, or upstream to Winona.

The prospect of a sudden surge of traffic put Minnesota highway officials into a mild panic. The 1890-vintage high wagon bridge in Winona was already under weight and speed restrictions due to concerns about age and carrying capacity. Guards were posted at both approaches to the Winona bridge to strictly enforce load limits.

Commuters between La Crosse and Minnesota were faced with a long detour or chancy boat ride in the days after the collapse. Within three days, a ferry capable of carrying four cars was shuttling between Riverside Park and the west bank of the river, as construction crews worked overtime to replace the fallen span — a task completed by Aug. 20.

Investigations into the collapse pointed to a similar mishap that had occurred two years earlier on July 4, when a car struck the same girder, the impact carrying along the steel beam for nine feet. The damage was repaired, but it was believed that the beam was weakened and vulnerable.

The collapse spurred attention to aging bridges on both sides of the river. The La Crosse bridge was opened in 1891, a year after and similar in construction to the bridge at Winona. Both bridges were found deficient and in 1939 the Cass Street Bridge was opened between Minnesota and La Crosse, followed three years later by the interstate bridge at Winona.

This story was first published Aug. 10, 2002, as part of the Daily News’ ongoing Pieces of the Past history feature.

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