by Mike Knaak
The little metal bridge over Watab Creek stood tall for 100 years.
It survived farm work and fun with four generations of Trauts but it didn’t survive a suspicious fire that burned the beams and boards.
Early on the morning of July 24, Larry Traut was startled when a Sartell police officer drove into his yard west of Sartell.
The officer had spotted smoke and wondered what Larry was burning.
He stepped outside with the officer who saw flames rising from the one-lane bridge north of the house.
“What the hell, my bridge is on fire,” Larry said.
Sartell firefighters struggled to extinguish the flames. Years before, metal sheets were installed to cover the planks when the bridge was on a snowmobile trail that ran from St. Joseph to St. Stephen.
Firefighters peeled back the metal sheets and put out the fire. Now, the charred beams and road boards tumble toward the water below.
A week after the fire, Larry, 81, gathered with his oldest brother Bill, 93, and their nephew, Ralph, to share memories of the family landmark.
The bridge found its second life on the property in the 1920s. It originally spanned Watab Creek on Riverside Avenue. When a new bridge replaced it, Larry and Bill’s father salvaged it and moved it to their property.
The newly relocated bridge connected two sections of the Traut farm – the 40 acres south of the river and 60 acres north of it.
When the Trauts weren’t crossing it to tend their corn and alfalfa fields, younger family members used the bridge for swimming and fishing.
“I can remember that bridge down there was a swimming hole for everybody in the area,” Larry said. “At night, cars would come in and drive down there and go swimming every night in the summer time.”
Bill’s memories go back to the late 1920s. One of his earliest memories is of his dad watching him use a team of horses to grade the bridge approach.
“As soon as we were able to walk, our toes were pointed toward the river,” Bill said. “The sand was so nice and cool on my bare feet.”
Ralph’s family lived two miles down the river.
“Every day in the summer we’d get on our bicycles and ride over here to go swimming and jump off the bridge,” he said.
Larry learned to swim under the bridge.
“My swimming lessons lasted 30 seconds to a minute,” Larry said. “I have twin brothers a couple of years older than me – Marvin and Melvin – and one day, one grabbed me by the legs and one grabbed me by the shoulders and threw me in. It’s 8 to 10 feet deep. I don’t know if they would have jumped in to save me. All of a sudden I started swimming.
“Nowadays people would not let kids our age run down there,” Larry said. “Four or 5 years old and we’d be standing on the bridge fishing.”
Larry, who worked for the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service until he retired in 1999, doesn’t know what will happen to the damaged bridge. He’s waiting to hear from his insurance company.
Larry rents out his corn fields. New homes, now part of the city of Sartell, occupy the land north of the river.
“The bridge has no use for farming any more but it certainly didn’t deserve the demise it went through,” Bill said.