St. Paul's High Bridge: Suicide Hot Spot

Ever since the original High Bridge was built in 1889, it's been a magnet for people seeking to end their lives

The most famous bridge suicide in local lore is John Berryman's 1972 leap from the Washington Avenue Bridge. The tortured 47-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning poet waved to onlookers and then plunged to his death, landing on a pile of rocks in the Mississippi River.

But the High Bridge on Smith Avenue in St. Paul has long held a dark allure for area depressives. Towering 160 feet above the Mississippi River, with spectacular views of downtown, the steel-and-concrete bridge is one of the city's most recognizable landmarks. The phrase "taking the High Bridge as a way out" has long served as a euphemism for suicide among area residents.

This grim reputation has been reinforced in recent weeks. On December 11, 37-year-old Kirsten Girard left a suicide note for her fiancé and drove to the High Bridge. By the time her boyfriend contacted police, the Chicago native had already plunged to her death.

Bob Deck discovered the badly bruised body of Sylvia Johnson on the Mississippi River shoreline in September 2005
Nick Vlcek
Bob Deck discovered the badly bruised body of Sylvia Johnson on the Mississippi River shoreline in September 2005

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WHERE TO GO FOR HELP

SAVE: This Bloomington-based nonprofit runs grief-support programs, a speaker's bureau, and continuing education programs for mental health professionals. Phone: 952.946.7998

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: This 24-hour, toll-free hotline is linked up with 120 crisis centers across the country. Its mission is to provide immediate help to anyone seeking mental health services. Phone: 800.273.8255

American Association of Suicidology: This national nonprofit group seeks to understand and prevent suicide. It provides services to suicide survivors, puts together conferences on mental health issues, and supports research into suicide prevention. Phone: 202.237.2280

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New Year's Eve brought another jumper. Jennifer Kingsbury and her boyfriend, Chris Yunger, were driving across the High Bridge when they came upon a pickup truck parked in the roadway on the frigid, blustery night. Pulling in front of the vehicle, they spied a man standing on the bridge's walkway. Roughly six feet tall with thinning hair, the man wore a leather jacket and held a cell phone in his hand, with one foot perched up on the bridge's railing. As the couple watched in disbelief, he climbed up on the stone structure. Yunger rolled down his window and called out to the stranger: "What are you doing?" But it was too late. "He just kind of pushed off and that was it," says Kingsbury. "We just went, 'Oh my God.'"

The couple called 911 and the St. Paul police found themselves at the High Bridge once again. The jumper was subsequently identified as 50-year-old West St. Paul-resident Robert Edward Taylor. His body has yet to be recovered.

 

ON THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 8, 2005, Bob Deck, a burly 50-year-old with a shock of gray hair, was piloting a 20-foot motorboat south on the Mississippi River. The sun was rising in the sky as rush hour traffic rumbled on the bridges above. Deck was heading for a refueling station beneath the High Bridge.

He was well versed in the rhythms of the river. For 25 years he guided tugboats through its murky waters. Now he worked seasonally for the Science Museum of Minnesota, leading groups of junior high students out on the river to conduct minnow surveys. But this morning he was alone.

Deck had seen his share of grisly sights during his decades on the water. In 1978, while driving along a road beneath the High Bridge, he spied a body lying on the asphalt ahead of him. At first the veteran waterman thought it was one of his buddies playing a joke. He honked his horn at the prone figure, but received no response. Then Deck noticed that the man's limbs were splayed out in an unnatural manner. "Things were kind of bent a little funny," Deck recounts. He called 911, but there was nothing to do but cart off the remains.

That same year, Deck was on a tugboat when he witnessed a man plunge into the water from the High Bridge. A colleague of Deck's pulled the man out of the river and dragged him to shore. As they waited for medical help, the jumper struggled to speak. Deck leaned in to hear what he had to say. "I wish I hadn't done that," the man murmured.

"He had broken both legs and both arms," Deck recalls. "He was in bad shape."

An ambulance transported the man to the hospital. Deck assumes he survived, but can't say for certain. He never saw him again.

On this balmy September morning, as Deck approached the gas dock beneath the High Bridge, something caught his eye on the shoreline. "I didn't know that it was a person right away," he says. The prone figure, roughly 50 feet away, was covered in mud and wrapped in an oversized white T-shirt.

Deck eventually discerned that it was a woman. He called out to the figure lying in the mud. "Are you able to stand up?" he asked. She managed to get to her feet, but then quickly tumbled backward.

"She was pretty dirty, and I was kind of shocked," he says. "It never occurred to me that she was a jumper. I thought maybe she was a rape victim who had been dumped there."

Deck called 911 on his cell phone, beached his boat, and approached the woman curled up on the shore. He tried to comfort her as they awaited help. The only information he was able to extract was her name.

The woman was Sylvia Johnson. After leaping from the High Bridge in the pre-dawn hours, she'd somehow managed to swim through the chilly waters to shore.

 

DESPITE ITS GEOGRAPHIC PROXIMITY to downtown St. Paul, the city's West Side was still something of a remote outpost as the close of the 19th century neared. The bluffs were sparsely populated by Italian immigrants; Polish shantytowns lined the flats. But the port town was in the midst of a population explosion, with the number of residents ballooning from roughly 40,000 in 1880 to more than 130,000 a decade later.

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