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

Pushed by Democratic Mayor Robert A. Smith, the construction of the High Bridge, linking the fledgling commercial corridor of West Seventh Street to the city's West Side, was controversial from its inception. Critics charged that the bridge was merely a means for politically connected businessmen who owned land on the bluffs to reap a windfall. Other opponents had more dubious reasons for questioning the necessity of the construction. "This is too much money for the six or eight Dagos who will walk over it a day," charged one disgruntled citizen in a newspaper account at the time.

In the face of this opposition, Smith, who also served as a state senator, nonetheless managed to secure $500,000 in municipal bonds to pay for the structure. Construction on the 2,770-foot span, designed by Andrew Carnegie's Keystone Bridge Company, began in July of 1887.

The High Bridge opened to the public two years later. At the time, the 3,000-ton, wrought-iron span was eclipsed in length and height only by the Poughkeepsie Bridge over the Hudson River in New York. Observers, however, immediately noted a potential downside to the awe-inspiring structure. "The new bridge will be a bonanza for would-be suicides unless protected in some manner more effective than the ordinary rail," the St. Paul Daily Globe noted at the time.

Jon Krause
The High Bridge was rebuilt in the mid-'80s after engineers determined that it wasn't structurally sound
Nick Vlcek
The High Bridge was rebuilt in the mid-'80s after engineers determined that it wasn't structurally sound

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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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Sure enough, it didn't take long for area depressives to seize on the High Bridge as a dramatic perch from which to commit suicide. Shortly after the structure opened, a reporter for the Daily Globe described encountering a woman, who he believed to be a prostitute, peering over the railing at the murky river waters below. As he watched her place one foot up on the railing, apparently preparing to jump, he cried out, "Ho there!" The woman stopped and said, "I've been looking down into that cursed black hell for an hour past and I can't gather courage to let myself drop!"

In the ensuing decades, others proved more successful at taking the plunge. On May 18, 1893, at 2:15 p.m., a 12-year-old boy named J.M. Karl was crossing the High Bridge when he was stopped by a man driving a horse-drawn carriage. "I want you to take this horse and buggy home for me," the man instructed. The gentleman handed Karl a piece of paper with the address 419 S. Grove Street, along with a letter, then proceeded to hurl himself over the side of the bridge.

The jumper was Charles S. Rogers, president of the St. Paul Cordage Company and one of the city's wealthiest residents. The New York Times offered a couple of theories for his suicide—business failings, domestic trouble—but settled on "mental aberration" as the most likely culprit. "Rogers had been busy almost night and day for over a year getting the cordage plant in operation, and it is believed this severe work unbalanced his mind," the newspaper speculated.

A 1904 storm, reportedly registering winds of 180 miles per hour, sent pieces of the High Bridge flying 100 yards downstream. The structure was closed for nearly a year, requiring $61,000 in repairs.

The jumpers returned almost as soon as it reopened. In April 1934, Frank Walter Burnett learned that his wife had filed for divorce. He didn't take the news well. Burnett fired two shots at her before the gun jammed. He proceeded to climb into his car, drive to the High Bridge, and jump off. He landed on a concrete pier and died. A brief, front-page story in the Pioneer Press detailing his death was headlined "Shoots at Wife, Leaps to Death." Burnett's widow went on to marry the man with whom she'd been having an affair.

Perhaps the oddest suicide associated with the High Bridge occurred in 1979. On August 23, 15-year-old St. Paul resident Eddie Seidel Jr. was despondent over the cancellation of his favorite television program, Battlestar Galactica. He wrote to ABC asking that they reconsider the decision, to no avail.

There were other signs all was not well with the teenager. His father had recently learned that Eddie had been sniffing gas with friends, and sent him to counseling. "The psychiatrist said he was just kind of bored with life, that there was nothing here for him to excel in," his father later told the Associated Press. "There was no real challenge here on this earth."

Roughly three weeks after the final rerun of Battlestar Galactica aired, Seidel returned home from his job as a supermarket stock boy and retreated to his room. He scrawled a last will and testament and sped off on his moped toward the High Bridge. Police officers responding to the scene attempted to talk the troubled teenager down, but he couldn't be dissuaded from his grim mission. Seidel jumped to his death, landing on the ground below. His family arrived at the scene 10 minutes after the fateful leap.

"I hope we never ever see [Battlestar Galactica] on TV again, because it would just crush us," his mother, Dawn Seidel, said at the time.

The High Bridge was again closed in 1984, by engineers from the Minnesota Department of Transportation who feared that it wasn't structurally sound. West Side residents held a funeral for the structure, complete with a hearse and flowers tossed into the Mississippi River. On February 24, 1985, roughly 25,000 people gathered to watch the talismanic bridge get leveled by 76 pounds of plastic explosives.

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