The road to nowhere leads to Houlton, Wisconsin (pop. 386). What used to be a street coming up the hill from the Stillwater Lift Bridge is now a mere pedestrian trail. The roadway once fed into Highway 35, which carried motorists north of town. That highway has been tourniqueted with a sign reading "Road Closed."
Houlton has become a pretty lonesome place since August. It has the new St. Croix River Crossing bridge to thank. The structure carries four lanes of traffic, connecting Oak Park Heights and St. Joseph, Wisconsin. It was built to replace the outdated and deteriorating Lift Bridge.
Today, Houlton feels like a forgotten colony. There's one road leading into and leaving town. Access now begins downriver by crossing the new bridge, exiting the highway, and following a gauntlet of traffic circles to ultimately arrive in Houlton.
Once upon a time travelers crossed the Lift Bridge for evenings of food, drink, and tunes at various supper clubs like Holcomb's, the Turf Club, and Henny's. There was a bowling alley and a drive-in movie theater. Drivers filled their tanks at Marathon Gas. Campers en route to weekend retreats made pit stops at B & L Liquors, a mainstay since 1956.
Time would be unkind. The supper clubs burned down or closed. The Cajun Club strip joint replaced Henny's. The drive-in went bust. Bulldozers did away with the bowling alley to make room for a storage facility.
The stragglers moved forward, but the gas station became a casualty of the $646 million bridge, its car count dropping from 200 vehicles on Sundays to maybe 20 daily at best.
Marathon employee Roxy Rockwood told the Pioneer Press that the station went from selling 4,000 gallons of a day to 1,000 gallons.
Bridgeport Marine opened in 2005. It sells boats and provides winterization services. The company primarily relies on the internet to direct customers to its Houlton showroom. Bridgeport's Brian Shelton says the business considers itself a destination spot, but navigating the roundabouts is proving confusing to customers, most of whom come from the Twin Cities.
"There's nobody driving past us anymore, although people are still coming to us," he says. "It's figuring out how to get here. I think we'll have a better sense of how this is going to impact us in the spring, since the new bridge opened during the slow part of our season."
Al Severson isn't reserving judgment. He's owned B & L Liquor since 1989. Severson's loyal clients mostly came over the old bridge in Stillwater. They'd arrive at the store about the time Severson was opening at 9 a.m. Sunday sales weren't the boon you'd think they were, he says. But business was steady, with drive-by customers heading to Somerset accounting for a decent percentage of his sales.
Prior to the new bridge, Severson could count on sales in the $400 to $600 range by late morning every day. Now he's lucky if the cash register rings like that for an entire 12-hour shift. Of those dozens of hardcore customers, Severson hasn't seen one of them in two months.
"Now it's too far to drive for them to get their morning hit," he says. "They wait until 11 o'clock and go to places on the Minnesota side. Our business has dropped overall by 80 percent."
Severson admits he's "barely hanging on by the skin of his teeth." He plans to make the fatal decision come January. If he can wait.
"If things keep going at this rate," says Severson, "I'll be liquidating and selling the building a lot sooner."
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