Eau Claire, WI has seven footbridges that span the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers. They’re all a part of the almost 29 miles of recreational trails that bring people together for work, school, and play while also offering bikers and pedestrians a breathtaking view of the scenery within the city. But how did we get here? What are the stories behind the seven footbridges that connect our community?
It all started near the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers. This is where the city was founded and as it expanded, bridges were needed to connect the various sections of town that were separated by water. The railway arrived in Eau Claire in July of 1870, and it connected our community in even greater ways than before.
The look and function of many of these bridges changed throughout the years, but their original purpose of connecting our community remained the same. And new footbridges were also added to accommodate the growing need for connection. Here are their brief stories.
While the High Bridge is Eau Claire’s newest footbridge, it also holds the honor of being the city’s oldest railroad bridge. Built at the end of the 19th century to connect local communities to major cities like St. Paul, MN, the High Bridge now connects bicyclist and pedestrian trails from Roosevelt Elementary School to Forest St. This bridge has quickly become one of the favorites around town with its amazing views of the city from 80 feet above water.
Phoenix Park Bridge
Just south of the High Bridge near the spot where it all started for our city lies the Phoenix Park Bridge. Assembled in the early 1900s to further Milwaukee Road’s railroad expansion into Wisconsin, the Phoenix Park Bridge was built from parts of three other railroad bridges, as evidenced by the west-most span being higher than the other two. Today the bridge is a part of the Chippewa River State Trail.
Boyd Park Bridge
Pedestrians have been crossing the Eau Claire River from this vicinity for over 115 years. The original purpose was to connect neighborhoods and businesses from the Eastside Hill with the North side. Boyd Park Playground was later added and attracted children from the north side and soon after that a parking lot was added on the south side of the river that workers from the tire company on the north side would utilize. In 1932, the city of Eau Claire built the first official Boyd Park Pedestrian Bridge and that lasted until the current structure was built in 2005.
The other footbridge that runs across the Eau Claire River is one of our city’s most unique bridges - the S Bridge. Originally built for the railway, this bridge was designed to curve into an “S” shape to seamlessly connect the main track on the north side of the river with the depot on the south side. It was renovated and converted to a bicycle and pedestrian bridge in 2002.
Grand Ave Bridge
Grand Ave used to be connected to downtown with a vehicle bridge, but that was moved to Lake St. in the 1970s. In hopes of connecting college students with the downtown, construction then began on the current Grand Ave footbridge in 1979. Today it continues to connect not only college students but also professionals, shoppers, walkers, and cyclists to the downtown.
Arguably the most legendary bridge in Eau Claire, the UWEC Footbridge opened in 1969 to connect the north side of the campus with the rest of the university. It also eliminated over a half-mile for those students walking from the 5th ward who previously got to campus via the Water St. bridge. Fun facts about the UWEC footbridge, (1) it was mentioned on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and (2) the original plan called for the structure to be “an enclosed, heated bridge”!
Clairemont Ave Bridge
The western-most footbridge over the Chippewa River is the Clairemont Ave Bridge. Like the S, Phoenix, and High bridges, this bridge was once a railroad bridge. The purpose of this structure in the early 1900s was to provide expansion opportunities by connecting lines in Wabasha, MN to Chippewa Falls, WI. It was eventually abandoned and then converted to a biking and walking trail in the 1990s. The Clairemont Ave Bridge now joins the Phoenix Bridge as a part of the Chippewa River State Trail.
Seven Eau Claire footbridges spanning the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers with seven different stories yet all shared a unified purpose from their beginnings: to connect our community. Some of them were built for trains to connect freight and passengers to major urban centers and some were built for pedestrians to simply connect one part of the town to another.
Today, despite not being utilized by trains anymore, these bridges still serve that same purpose of connecting our community. The Eau Claire Marathon brings thousands of runners together on a course that utilizes many of the footbridges. Downtown Eau Claire holds an annual fundraiser dinner on the bridge that brings community members together for a charitable purpose. You’ll regularly see UWEC students snapping selfies on the campus footbridge and sharing them with friends and family using the hashtag #BridgeFace. And it’s tough to find a weekend in the spring, summer, or fall where there aren’t large groups of people coming together on the footbridges to take wedding, engagement, homecoming, prom, or senior pictures.
So the next time you’re on one of Eau Claire’s beautiful footbridges connecting with friends, nature, or headed to a specific destination for work or play, remember that you’re taking part of a tradition that has been going on in this community for over 145 years.
Special thanks to Greg Kocken, John Marvig, Roxanne K. Owens, and John R. Thurston. Your research on the Eau Claire footbridges was invaluable, and I truly enjoyed learning from it.