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1931 car to be last to cross Stillwater lift bridge as massive new bridge opens

An aerial view shows the new St. Croix Crossing bridge, foreground, over the St. Croix River on Thursday, July 20, 2017. The new bridge, which connects Oak Park Heights, Minn. and St. Joseph, Wis., replaces the old Stillwater Lift Bridge, rear, which opened in 1931. A dedication ceremony to mark the opening of the new bridge will be held Wed, Aug. 2, 2017 at 10 a.m. (John Autey / Special to the Pioneer Press) 1 / 2
An aerial view shows the new St. Croix Crossing bridge over the St. Croix River on Thursday, July 20, 2017. The new bridge, which connects Oak Park Heights, Minn. and St. Joseph, Wis., replaces the old Stillwater Lift Bridge, which opened in 1931. A dedication ceremony to mark the opening of the new bridge will be held Wed, Aug. 2, 2017 at 10 a.m. (John Autey / Special to the Pioneer Press) 2 / 2

STILLWATER, Minn.—It's still a mystery who will be first to drive across the new St. Croix River bridge once it officially opens to traffic, but you can meet the man who plans to be the last one across the Stillwater Lift Bridge.

He's Mark Desch, a longtime Stillwater business owner and classic-car collector who just happens to own a robin's-egg blue Stutz DV-32 Convertible Sedan that was made in 1931 — the same year the lift bridge opened to traffic.

When Stillwater Mayor Ted Kozlowski heard about Desch's classic car, he thought it would be fitting for Desch to be the last person to drive across the bridge. The lift bridge is scheduled to close to motor-vehicle traffic at the same time the new bridge opens two miles to the south.

Minnesota Department of Transportation officials have said the bridge will open to traffic within 24 hours of the 10 a.m. Wednesday ribbon cutting; Desch said he was told that the lift bridge would likely close between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Wednesday.

"Everybody is really excited," Kozlowski said. "We've got nine classic cars representing the nine decades that the lift bridge has been in operation, and we want them to be the last cars to cross the bridge."

The cars will be on display beginning at 6 p.m. as part of the previously scheduled Cruisin' on the Croix car show in Lowell Park. The show has been renamed "Cruisin' to Closure" for the night.

The show, which normally ends at 9 p.m., is going to go "as long as it takes — until that bridge gets closed," Kozlowski said. "I'm hearing from loads of people. They're just planning on pulling a lawn chair out and sitting there and waiting. They want to be there when that thing is closed and done forever. There might even be a few people throughout Stillwater randomly setting off fireworks. We need to make sure everyone knows the minute it closes."

Extra food vendors are being added to accommodate the large crowd that is expected, and the Stillwater City Council is expected to approve an alcoholic-beverage public consumption permit for all of Lowell Park, Kozlowski said.

Desch, the president of Student Assurance Services Inc., said he is proud to play a part. He bought the car at auction in Hershey, Penn., in 2015 for $140,000; he declined to say how much he has spent on restoring it.

In the car's glove compartment is a postcard noting its claim to fame: the car was one of seven used by Warner Bros. in the filming of "Giant" in 1955.

Desch, 72, owns a dozen classic cars, including three that were built in 1931 — the Stutz, an Auburn Cord Duesenberg convertible coupe and a Peerless club sedan.

He said 1931 was a good year for expensive cars because it was right after the stock market crash of 1929 and car companies were trying to appeal to the higher-end market.

"The lower-end market was gone," he said. "They couldn't sell Fords and Chevys and that kind of stuff. The higher-end cars were where the money was."

Desch, who owns the Desch building in downtown Stillwater at 333 N. Main St., often drives around town in his classic cars. In the winter, he drives a Chevy pickup. He began collecting cars in 1993 after attending an auction in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., with his wife, Gloria. The couple has four children and five grandchildren.

Desch, who has lived in Stillwater since 1991, said he's happy the new bridge will open soon.

"The local people are, I think, are very excited to see it happen," he said.

On Tuesday, observers reported, cars were lining up in downtown Stillwater to cross the historic bridge one last time.

The lift bridge, which will undergo two years' worth of repairs, will continue to be owned and operated by MnDOT and to lift for marine traffic.

In 2019, it will become part of a bicycle and walking trail that will connect with the new bridge.

"It's kind of an iconic thing for Stillwater, so it's good that they are saving it," Desch said. "I don't think anybody who crosses it is going to miss it."

A number of dignitaries will attend the ribbon cutting, including Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Also on hand will be Lowell Schmoeckel, 52, of Stillwater, a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49 who helped build the bridge.

"I started on it years ago," he said. "Actually, in the mid-'90s, I worked on test pilings for the new bridge. ... We've been needing this bridge for a long time. It's pretty exciting for the people of the valley here. No more getting stuck in traffic."

He said he is proud to have played a role in the historic project.

"Something for the kids to tell their (future) children about, 'Oh, your grandfather worked on the bridge,' " he said. "I got some pictures, and I saved some newspaper articles."

Also at the bridge opening will be two sisters, Helen Josephson, 101, of Stillwater Township, and Doris Erler, 99, of New Richmond, Wis., who attended the dedication of the lift bridge on July 1, 1931. Minnesota Gov. Floyd B. Olson presided.

The Danielson girls were 13 and 15 at the time. Their father, Axel, brought them in from their farm near Square Lake in northern Washington County to take part in the festivities.

"I just remember that the officials were on the bridge and in (Lowell) Park, and there were people packed along Main Street," Erler said. "This is something we've been looking forward to. I'm hoping that it will work out fine — now that I'm living in Wisconsin."

BRIDGE BASICS

•Cost of total project: $646 million

•Piers in the river: 5

•Piers on land: 7 in Minnesota, 1 in Wisconsin

•Bridge structure: "extradosed," a hybrid of a cable-stayed and segmental box bridge structure

•Length of bridge: Nearly 1 mile (5,074 ft.)

•Width: About 100 feet

•Driving surface height above the river: 110 feet to 150 feet (shortest near Minnesota bluff, tallest near Wisconsin bluff)

•Height of towers above the driving surface: about 65 feet

•Number of pre-cast segments that make up the bridge deck: 988

•Total concrete: 140,000 cubic yards, or 14,000 concrete trucks

•Total steel: 42.3 million pounds (the equivalent of 3,500 elephants)

•Total paint: 22,000 gallons for 1.1 million square feet of surface area

•Dump-truck loads of sand, muck and gravel removed to reach bedrock: about 2,500

Source: Minnesota Department of Transportation

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