Feb 09, 2012 • By

Bridges helped build our business

When a company has about 150 years of history – as does General Mills, and, as we say, “its predecessor companies” – there’s no shortage of stories, some of which center on aspects of life that few of us think about.

Bridges might be on that list. We cross them daily, but it wasn’t until Minnesota’s fifth-busiest bridge – the I-35W span in Minneapolis – collapsed in 2007 that many of us learned how much we take for granted getting from here to there.

Before air travel, bridges mattered even more, and they particularly mattered to millers in the Upper Midwest after Milwaukee and Chicago competitors raised freight rates on routes to the East Coast from Minneapolis in the late 1800s. Farming and milling fed families in Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas back then; suddenly folks in the big city were chomping into their livelihood.

The guy with that great Welsh first name – Cadwallader Washburn – was the founder of what became General Mills, and as 1900 was dawning he took a drastic step to keep wheat flowing east. He decided to build a railroad to take wheat north to Duluth’s shipping lanes on Lake Superior.

“People tend to think of Duluth as a major iron ore port, but they were moving 25 million bushels of wheat out of the Duluth harbor in the 1880s” author, historian and photographer Denis Gardner recently told an audience packed into the Betty Crocker Dining Room at our world headquarters in Minneapolis.

Every now and then the General Mills Archives summons an authority on company history to visit, and Gardner – an expert on Minnesota’s bridges – illustrated how Cadwallader once again left his mark on industry with his role in the Soo Line Railroad.

Part of a family that hung out with Abraham Lincoln, Cadwallader also was an influence in the military and politics, serving as a major general in the Union Army in the War Between the States as governor of neighboring Wisconsin.

Washburn’s rail route north ultimately led to the building of a slender, arched bridge called the Soo Line. It still stands more than 100 years later in Minnesota’s St. Croix River Valley, which features more than 150 miles of national scenic river way smack dab in the middle of the United States.

The author of “Wood+Concrete+Stone+Steel: Minnesota’s Historic Bridges,” Gardner’s seamless presentation segued from the importance of bridges to the military “so they didn’t have to beat through the brushes,” to their importance farmers, millers and business in the Upper Midwest.

“Bridges were the lifeblood of communities,” Gardner said.

Bridges are also considered to be examples of grand architecture and engineering. Gardner calls the Soo Line span “a trophy to the Soo Line Railroad,” and it is considered to be a unique rail bridge: slim, elegant, and unfit for rail cars save for a single engineering feat involving a locking hinge that is designed to engage under the weight of a train, making the structure stiff enough to carry such bulk.

The bridge’s cost more than 100 years ago? Half a million dollars. Or, what Gardner calls a “princely sum” in the early 1900s. That would be about $12 million today. When the I-35W bridge was replaced in 2008, it cost $234 million.