Stillwater Bridge controversy lived on in MnDOT-commissioned book project

By Mike Kaszuba

It all seemed simple enough.  The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) would pay $50,000 to have the Washington County Historical Society write “the complete story” of the iconic Stillwater Lift Bridge.  But almost from the beginning nothing was simple, according to documents obtained by St. Paul non-profit Public Record Media (PRM).

MnDOT was contractually obligated to partner with the county historical society as a condition for proceeding with one of its largest projects ever – the $600 million-plus St. Croix Crossing, the long-fought-over replacement for the Stillwater Bridge.  The 81-year-old historical society, concerned that MnDOT had a different vision for the project, soon began bickering with the state agency over editorial control.

The attempt to write the old bridge’s history took place in the aftermath of the decades-long controversy over whether a replacement bridge should be built between Minnesota and Wisconsin, across a federally-protected scenic river corridor.  In some respects, the book project was indicative of other fights that had preceded it.

“The censorship by your office . . . must stop,” Brent Peterson, the historical society’s 16-year executive director, told MnDOT in an April 2015 e-mail.  One of the historical society’s chief authors, Don Empson, dropped out of the project to write his own book on the topic, saying in a May 2015 e-mail that agency officials told them their job was “to make MnDOT look good.”  Empson himself had been a major player in the lift bridge saga, and had served as a spokesman for Rivertown Restoration Inc., a group that lobbied to save the old bridge as plans for the new bridge moved forward.

MnDOT canceled book contract

In an unusual move, MnDOT cancelled its contract with the historical society in September, stating that the “quality of the [book’s] writing is poor” and that “critical information” was missing from the book’s early draft.  In its letter, MnDOT added that the historical society “made it clear that [it] doesn’t intend to make any substantive changes.”

MnDOT spokesman Kevin Gutknecht added in an e-mail on Nov. 30 that “MnDOT ended the contract because the Washington County Historical Society had quit responding to our efforts to communicate with them.”  The purpose of the writing the book, he added, was “to ensure that there was an objective history of the lift bridge available for future generations.”

In an interview with PRM in November, Peterson disagreed with MnDOT’s assessment of what happened. “MnDOT was looking at a propaganda piece, and we were looking at [the book] as a historical piece,” he said.

Historical Society, MnDOT differed over focus

Empson said MnDOT seemed determined to minimize the emotions surrounding the fate of the old bridge, which was built in 1931 and remains a state landmark. At one point, MnDOT sent Empson an e-mail that suggested the following wording for the beginning of the section on the old bridge’s future:  “Today the future of the Lift Bridge is rosy,” MnDOT’s proposed text read. “Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of several historic preservation groups, stakeholders and government agencies, including MnDOT, the Lift Bridge will be available to enjoy long into the future.”

In a January 2015 e-mail to his historical society colleagues, Empson said in response: “See what I mean?”

For its part, the historical society wanted the book to include a blow-by-blow account of how the fate of the historic structure was often in doubt, even though the bridge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.

According to a March 2015 e-mail, one draft of the book indicated that the historical society wanted to include an early bridge study that predicted “it is unlikely that either MnDOT or [the Wisconsin Department of Transportation] would be able to indefinitely fund the operation and maintenance of the existing bridge if a new crossing is built . . . Unless a new owner can be located, the agencies will eventually propose to have the structure demolished or relocated to another site.”

Historical society sought information on bridge-building process

Early on in the book project, the historical society had sought to go even further with its background research.  In October 2014, Empson submitted a formal request to MnDOT for detailed information: “While the bare facts of the controversy are well known,” Empson wrote, “there is very little information on what went on ‘behind the scenes.’  I would like to illustrate in greater detail how MnDOT dealt with at least some of the very difficult negotiations involved in bringing this project to a successful conclusion.  Without knowing what is available, it is difficult to make a specific request, but let me make a general request.  Could you send me all the e-mails, correspondence, memos and other available communications regarding the Stillwater Lift Bridge from 1990 through 2010 that either originated in the Commissioner of Transportation’s office, or were received by it[?]”

Empson also asked for the costs of a series of cultural resource studies that were done as part of the new bridge crossing project.  In a New Year’s Day 2015 e-mail to MnDOT’s Renee Barnes, Empson stated that one study alone had cost taxpayers at least $61,000.  “I think people would be astonished at what history cost!” Empson wrote.

MnDOT sought to change direction of early drafts

MnDOT officials felt Empson and the historical society were straying from the book’s purpose.  In a January 2015 e-mail, Barnes told Empson that “it is our decision that the dollar amount information is not appropriate for this publication.”  She quickly followed with another message.  At MnDOT, she wrote, “we just collectively feel that this should be [a] historical monograph about the lift bridge and new bridge and not be bogged down by a ton of bureaucratic information.”

By March, MnDOT let it be known that it had fundamental problems with the book’s initial draft.  “You will see that we have added and reworded a lot.  We … felt the tone of the book was not what we expected or envisioned for the publication,” Barnes told the historical society.  “I have received the invoice from [the historical society] but since this draft text was not at a standard that we had expected, I will be waiting to approve that till we have a second draft for review.”

Lift bridge history as backdrop for controversy

The lift bridge’s convoluted history – especially as the two-lane structure aged and growth surged in the St. Croix River Valley – served as a backdrop to the book controversy.  According to an early draft of the book, the lift bridge was not meeting traffic demands by the 1950s, even though it was not yet  30 years old.  Long lines of cars often waited as the bridge was raised for passing boats.  By 1969, test drills were taking place for three possible new bridge sites along the river.

Plans for a new bridge were thrown into doubt when the Sierra Club went to court in the late 1990s and succeeded in arguing that new construction would violate the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.  After 34 years of planning, according to a draft of the historical society’s book, the new bridge project was suspended indefinitely in 2001.  However, efforts to build a replacement bridge began to gather steam again a decade ago, and ultimately succeeded.  With U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar and other politicians leading the way, Congress passed special legislation that gave the project a green light.  President Obama concurred in 2012, and construction began in the spring of 2013.

A deteriorating relationship

By spring of 2015, the book’s prospects continued to dim as the relationship  between MnDOT and the historical society deteriorated.  Nancy Goodman, who was also helping to write the book for the historical society, took aim at MnDOT in a March 2015 e-mail.  “You do not get to delete passages about other options for the new crossing, such as the 3 architects’ plan.  You do not get to delete comments from the environmental agencies or from other interested groups or even inane comments from the Stillwater mayor.  This is all part of the history. This book is about a bridge, not about the MN Dept. of Transportation,”she wrote.

“Damn, I am pissed,” the historical society’s Brent Peterson wrote in a March 2015 e-mail.  “Venting, venting, venting.”

By March 2015, Empson had ended his work on the historical society’s book.  Via e-mail, he cheered on his former colleagues as disputes with MnDOT expanded.  “This is the best show in town,” he wrote in a September 2 message as MnDOT and the historical society continued their fight.

A struggle over ownership

As their relationship with MnDOT soured, the historical society’s attention turned to the question of who owned the work that had already been done.

For MnDOT, that issue seemed clear.  The agency’s contract with the historical society specified that the state owned “all rights, title and interest in all of the intellectual property rights, including copyrights, patents, trade secrets, trademarks and service marks in the works and documents” created and paid for under the contract.

With the book now in its graphic design stage, the historical society’s executive director laid out his thoughts in a September 9 message to his colleagues.  “We have fulfilled our obligations in the contract for the payments we have received . . . so no giving money back,” Peterson wrote. “[W]e will see how this will play out.”

Later that same day, Peterson again e-mailed his colleagues, stating, “I have been called into the principal’s office.”

Other parties criticized book

In early September, MnDOT had received comments about the book from the state’s Historic Preservation Office (HPO), and wanted the historical society to use them to make changes to the manuscript.

While the state’s HPO faulted MnDOT for not including it earlier in the writing process, the HPO took aim at the quality of the historical society’s work.  In a Sept. 11 letter, the HPO stated that a book chapter entitled “Saving the Bridge” needed to be “entirely rewritten as it includes several incorrect statements and references, is dismissive of the Federal Section 106 review process, does not adequately represent the significant efforts of all stakeholders (including MnDOT and the HPO) to address current and future preservation of the Lift Bridge, includes entirely too many subjective perceptions/opinions, contains information which is not pertinent to the historical significance of the Lift Bridge, and is generally lacking as an interesting and cohesive narrative.”

Across the river, the Wisconsin Historical Society had its own criticisms of the county historical society. In an August 18, 2015 e-mail, a Wisconsin official said that “we would highly recommend they hire a professional editor to work out tone, grammar, and formatting issues.”

As the county historical society addressed the latest criticisms, Peterson was not optimistic.  In a September 13 e-mail to his colleagues, he told them that MnDOT “will not like [our response] – they will have a fit – and will want to terminate our contract.”  He concluded by asking, “Why can’t we just write a book about the history of the lift bridge?”

Two weeks later, MnDOT did in fact terminate the contract.

In late November, MnDOT’s Gutknecht summarized where things stood.  “The project will hire a consultant to finish the work.  It will be a history of the lift bridge, illustrated, that focuses on its role and importance in the development of Stillwater.  It will be available as an E-book and as a print book through the Minnesota State Book Store.”

Empson meanwhile published his own book last May, printing just 150 copies.  “It has not been a best seller,” he said in a December email.

When the book came out, MNDOT officials sent Empson emails asking him to remove any references that suggested the agency was endorsing his book.

Editor’s note – All documents referenced in this story are available from PRM upon request.