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River falls, reveals piece of history

READS LANDING — The Mississippi River has fallen enough from its spring rise that Don Cunderla can look outside his Reads Landing home and see a stump near shore.

It sticks out maybe a foot, but for him, it's a big reminder of a major part of the history of the small town between Wabasha and the foot of Lake Pepin.

That stump is the last bit of the old railroad bridge that once spanned the river there. It was so low that the middle section was a barge with railroad tracks that could swing out of the way to let boats pass.

The stump is like many other little reminders of big historic buildings or places that can still be seen if you look. You might see a small stone wall or basement that was once part of a major mill or home. Those stone or wooden reminders of our past are are scattered everywhere.

In the case of Reads Landing, the reminder is that little stump, Cunderla said.


The entire bridge and its pilings are gone, he said. The stump is from a series of ice breakers built upriver to break up or block ice that could destroy the bridge.

Cunderla, 81, said he came to Reads Landing with his father and as a teen, commercially fished the river. He also liked to walk along the old bridge, lower himself a few feet and fish for sunfish, walleye and other species.

He later moved to Rochester but came back to Reads Landing every chance he got.

Today, he again lives in the small town and is trying to preserve as much of its history as he can.

What he remembers of the railroad that went along the Chippewa River to Eau Claire, Wis., is two trains crossed it daily.

Despite the ice breakers, ice twice knocked down the old bridge and after the second time, it wasn't rebuilt. According to the history of the Chippewa Valley Motor Car Association, the first bridge was built in 1882 with the pontoon section in the middle. The original, 400-foot-long pontoon was replaced in 1891 and again in 1907.

Because of the weight of the trains, the pontoon would sink 14 inches, so tracks between the pontoon and bridge were hinged.

By 1946, only a few of that kind of bridge were left in the world, of them, the 1,011-foot-long Reads Landings' was the largest.


In 1951, ice smashed a timber pile trestle, and the chain on the pontoon was broken. Then on April 16, 1951, one of the worst floods to sweep down the river washed out 32 spans. The pontoon was taken to Wabasha and the bridge was abandoned. The whole thing was removed the next year, except for that one post that Cunderla said was probably covered with sand or for some other reason wasn't pulled out.

The history of that bridge didn't end at Reads Landing.

The pontoon was sold to Lake City, where it was moored outside the old harbor and used for many years as a popular fishing float. Some sailboats were also moored behind it. It became an institution, a part of that town's history.

Then, nature put the final touch on its history. Powerful east winds May 7, 1983, pounded the sides of the old barge. The city tried to pump it out but gave up. It pulled the pumps and let the old barge sink until only its surface, washed by waves, was showing.

That barge was towed to the north side of the Hok-Si-La park and torn apart.

If you want to see a bit of that history, the old timbers were taken to Cooks Valley, west of Kellogg, where they are today.

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