By Mary Divine | | Pioneer Press

PUBLISHED: September 17, 2018 at 5:00 am | UPDATED: September 17, 2018 at 4:06 pm

It turns out it’s not that easy to find replacement parts for a bridge built in 1931.

Crews working on the $8.7 million rehabilitation of the Stillwater Lift Bridge had to ship its four huge pulleys to a company in Florida to have new ones fabricated.

Workers used a crane to remove the pulleys — each 9 feet in diameter and weighing 4 tons — and shipped them down the St. Croix River to a barge-loading facility. The pulleys, also called “sheaves,” were then trucked to JC Machine Works in Miami.

The rehabilitation project began last August when the lift bridge closed permanently to vehicle traffic and the new St. Croix River bridge in Oak Park Heights opened. When completed in June 2019, a 5-mile trail for walking and bicycling will loop over both bridges and on both sides of the river.

JC Machine Works in Miami is putting the finishing touches on the four huge pulleys that make the Stillwater Lift Bridge lift. The large pulleys, called sheaves, are being made by the Florida company, which specializes in fabricating parts for movable bridges. (Courtesy of JC Machine Works)

The bridge is being repainted to its original color of “federal green,” starting with its east end in Houlton, Wis. Five of the seven spans should be painted by Thanksgiving, said Seth Johnson, project manager for Kraemer North America, contracted by the Minnesota Department of Transportation for the project.

The new color may “take some getting used to because it kind of blends in with the trees,” Johnson said. “But it’s sure going to look nice in the wintertime, and also in the fall, when you have the contrast with the leaves or the snow.”

The span of the bridge that was removed to let marine traffic through will be reinstalled in November, he said. It’s currently sitting on barges in the middle of the river.

Crews also are repairing steel connections, restoring mechanical and electrical components, repairing concrete railings, reconstructing the concourse and replacing lighting to replicate the original 1931 lights.

Johnson said his team is on schedule despite some unexpected challenges, including two floods. “Obviously high water really complicates how we can access and complete the work safely,” he said.

The extensive work being done on the bridge should keep it operating for decades to come, said Eric Rustad, construction engineer for MnDOT.

Retired Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) employee Frank Pafko shows off one of the original rivets used in the construction of the Stillwater Lift Bridge. Crews saved about 10 of the rivets to give to Pafko, whose maternal grandfather helped build the bridge. Pafko, who retired in 2012, served as the agency’s chief environmental officer and as a metro district north area manager. “I always wanted a piece of the bridge that my grandpa had worked on,” he said. (Courtesy of Frank Pafko)

“The whole goal with this project, besides converting it to a pedestrian/bike trail, is to not have to do any more painting or steel repairs for many, many years to come,” he said. “We don’t want to come back here in five years.”

The sheaves being fabricated in Miami will be in Minnesota to be painted by the end of the month, said Pete Amador, president of JC Machine Works.

The sheaves carry the weight of the bridge section that lifts, about 600,000 pounds, and both of the bridge’s counterweights, another 300,000 pounds each.

“It’s a tremendous load,” Amador said.

JC Machine Works was the only company to bid on the $500,000 project, Johnson said.

Designed by a firm called Waddell and Harrington, the bridge is considered a rare surviving example of vertical-lift highway bridge construction, said Kent Barnard, a spokesman for MnDOT. Only six vertical-lift highway bridges were built in Minnesota and Wisconsin before World War II.

Most of the bridge parts that were removed were so rusted they went straight to the scrap pile, Rustad said. But about 10 rivets were saved for retired MnDOT employee Frank Pafko.

Pafko’s maternal grandfather, John Hybben, was a riveter who helped build the Stillwater bridge in the early 20th century.

Hybben emigrated from Slovakia as a child, lived in the Bohemian Flats in Minneapolis and worked for the American Bridge Co., his grandson said. “I always wanted a piece of the bridge that my grandpa had worked on,” Pafko said. He kept two of the rusted gray rivets and gave the rest to relatives. “It’s just kind of neat, and my aunts, cousins and kids think so, too,” he said.

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