Grand Little Bridge

some things you may not think about when crossing the river

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Serena Wagner

A patchy, crumbling concrete strip stretches from one side of the Chippewa River to the other. You can walk out on it, scuffling over loose pebbles as you go. As dark water gushes below, you can lean on the bridge’s old metal guardrails and watch the trees huddled along the riverbank, their branches rippling in the wind. You can see buildings and houses. Birds and bugs. Both upstream and down, you can see other bridges spanning the river. 

But this one came first.

Locals built the first Grand Avenue bridge in 1869, and for almost 150 years it’s carried people into downtown Eau Claire from the rest of the city. And according to Carrie Ronnander of the Chippewa Valley Museum, it was the first permanent bridge across the Chippewa River.

At first, it was the Grand Avenue drawbridge, Ronnander says. Builders engineered the structure to rotate, swinging to the side, affording passage to steamboats, logs, and chunks of drifting ice in the wintertime.

I still get nervous sometimes, looking over the rail and down into the churning river water. I get a little dizzy, lost in the swirling current. I grip the rail a bit harder and step back. I look up and out to see the river curve off into the trees. It looks more solid from a distance. More trustworthy.

The second incarnation of the bridge was constructed in 1880, with horse-drawn carriages, streetcars, and motorized vehicles rumbling across its back for the next 100 years – until Thursday, Feb. 17, 1972, when a state bridge inspector declared it unsafe for vehicles. Time and weather and water had deteriorated the main support so badly the city immediately banned buses and fire trucks. By the following Tuesday, the bridge was closed to traffic altogether.

And as Ronnander points out, it’s essentially been a pedestrian bridge ever since.

The Grand Avenue bridge we see today – the one used for foot and bike traffic, the one used for downtown’s annual Grand Evening on the Bridge dinner and the occasional yoga session – was built in 1979 and finished in 1980. Today It connects a cute little half-block of shops and restaurants on West Grand Avenue to the heart of downtown Eau Claire. And it gives you some profound views on the Chippewa River, flowing wide and strong right through the city.

Just upriver, the old railroad bridge opening up into Phoenix Park – with its sturdy lattice of iron trusses and its thick wooden planks bolted tight to the frame – makes for a jaunty enough stroll. And it’s hard to beat the High Bridge, with its grand view of the river, all of downtown and well beyond. (We call it the “High Bridge” for a reason.) But the Grand Avenue footbridge is something else.

People have been crossing this waterway at this very spot for 150 years.

The bridge has seen better days. Over a decade ago I used to walk across it every day on my way to work, and the concrete deck was never so brittle and crunchy. It’s perfectly safe, of course, but it’s not as pretty as it used to be.

I still get nervous sometimes, looking over the rail and down into the churning river water. I get a little dizzy, lost in the swirling current. I grip the rail a bit harder and step back. I look up and out to see the river curve off into the trees. It looks more solid from a distance. More trustworthy.

Rivers always change, but bridges plant a little consistency in between the currents. We need them to be reliable. We need them to stay standing right where they are, and true to form, the Grand Avenue footbridge isn’t going anywhere.

Eau Claire’s Director of Engineering Dave Solberg tells me the city is planning to replace the deck and railing next year, and they’ll even be constructing additional overlooks to accompany the pair or benches found at the center of the bridge.

With its prime location just downstream from the gathering of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers, it’ll offer a spectacular view of the forthcoming Confluence Arts Center. But even without those pretty new buildings, the Grand Avenue footbridge is something unique. It offers a quieter way to see the river. It’s more secluded than its counterparts around the city. It connects one side of the water to the other, and it connects us to a different time and a different version of ourselves.

It’s been here longer than any of us. And I’m sure it’ll be here long after other rivers carry us away.