River and Creek

The Wanigan's were barge boats that the River Drivers used as they transported logs down the Mississippi River. One of the Wanigan's would be their bunk house and a second Wanigan would be their cook shack.


by Marcella Zinda Dingmann

Before 1855 there were no public bridges across the Mississippi River. The residents on the west side of the River had to use their own boats, ferries, and toll bridges. In 1855 a bridge under construction was near completion when a high wind lifted the superstructure from its supports and causing it to collapse into the river.

In 1900 the Sartell Brothers ran a ferry near the site of the old bridge. In 1903 Joseph B. Sartell gave flowage rites to the Watab Paper company to organize, construct and operate a dam across the river. In 1914 the old girdered truss bridge was started to be built by the Northwestern Bridge Company, J.B. Sartell principal.

After the paper mill construction was completed, a “Swinging Bridge”, a suspension bridge was built to accommodate workers access from the west side of the river. Suspension bridges were used as bridges for chasms where there was no footing. The “Swinging Bridge” floated above the dam. It’s length was that of the dam. From the west bank to the sluiceways. Each side of the bridge had many vertical cables fastened above the two dam length cables which were anchored at each side of the dam. Except for its steel cables and wire fencing on the sides, it was made of wood planks, allowing replacement of damaged floorboards and other bridge pieces.

Our bridge was unique because of it’s long span and narrow structure. When the wind would blow, it whipped the bridge and occasionally damaged it.

People came from miles around to see it and to walk across it. In cold weather the employees and residents of the north end of town made a path diagonally over the river ice from a block above the dam’s west end to the platform above the power house.

As young children, my sister and I carried my Dad’s lunch across this bridge. He worked a lot of overtime and weekends. My Mother could pack two meals in a basket and we would carry it over the bridge to the paper mill.

He would lead us through the mill. My sister and I would each take long streamers of paper out of the bins and carry them with us. Sometimes we would watch the men spear logs and put them in the big crushers. We also watched the beaters, where the pulp was mixed with water. Sometimes the alarms would go off and the machines were shut down for a torn felt. They also had to cut and take the large layer of pulp off the felt. They used wooden sticks to cut the pulp, then they folded it and put it on skids. We didn’t go upstairs to the machine room very often. We just saw the huge rolls of paper.

When we were done sight seeing, my Dad, Roman Zinda, would take us through the mill to the west end. He would always check the weather before we were allowed to go on the “Swinging Bridge” to return home.

It was both fun and scary, walking across the wooden planks. The bridge would make a loud noise, and swing more when we ran across it on the wooden planks.

I can remember seeing the large fountain in front of the paper mill office building, and really looking at the deer in the deer park on the east side of the road into the paper mill. My sister and I always enjoyed the walk.

This excerpt is taken from the book “History of Sartell, Minnesota Lumber, Paper, Valves And Progress A Century of Progress, Welcoming a Century of Promise” page 134

The swinging bridge that crossed the Mississippi River in Sartell

A person walking across the swinging bridge in Sartell

flood 1943
flood 1965

The water flow was measured at 381,506.49 gallons of water per second over the Sartell Dam in the 1965 flood.


By Thomas Sartell

“Much has been written about the Sartell dam over the Mississippi River. But perhaps a few observations may be in order as noted by an observer over its first 40 or more years.

As soon as explorers visited our area, men had thoughts of harnessing the energy generated by the waters tumbling downstream at this dam sight. Before 1900 some attempts were made to get a proper project started but the sound work didn’t get started until after the turn of the century. When the project was completed about 1906, what resulted was a wooden dam made up of cribs filled with rock and covered over with wooden planks. Of course there was more to it than that, such as some solid concrete piers, but the wooden structure was what me the eye.

Paper mill management was lax in restricting access to the dam and we did most of our best fishing from the downstream lip of the apron. It was kind of a gathering place for local anglers. Little did it concern us that behind and above us only two-inch planks separated us from a possible torrent of water.”

Direct quote from the book History of Sartell, Minnesota Lumber, Paper, Valves, and Progress A Century of Progress, Welcoming a Century of Promise pages 110-111

This photo shows the men boarding up the river to hold it back with wooden planks called "needles". This photo is around 1937


By Thomas Sartell

“Even earlier and lasting until about 1930 a plank walkway, flanked by hand railings was part of the upper dam complex, that dam being maintained to preserve water levels for nearby resident, even though the first mill it originally served was destroyed by fire about 1909. The dam and its bridge eventually became too costly to keep up.

One more Watab River bridge must be mentioned. It was strictly a foot bridge arching over the water, constructed of lumber and located just beyond the second sharp turn upstream from the river mouth. It was made especially for completing a shortcut for children living south of the Watab in going to school. It was built in the 1920’s by Joseph S. Sartell and must have lasted at least 10 years.

The need for spanning the Watab River was not overlooked, either. In the early days of the village that stream was quite negotiable by fording since, except at spring spate, it had shallow, solid-bottom areas. But as soon as was practicable a bridge was put in a bit over 100 feet upstream from the river mouth. That may have been a rather crude wooden structure and it was replace by a steel-girdered bridge which served until 1924.

At that time a temporary wooden bridge was put in just downstream, running through the park for use only for that summer. The old bridge was then torn down and a new, concrete span was put in its place. That lasted from 1924 until it was replaced by a newer, wider bridge in the 1980’s. With the rate at which the city growing and traffic increasing, that structure seemed soon to be inadequate.

Other, lesser bridges of the Watab have also served individuals over the years.

Prior to 1910 or thereabouts a catwalk over and paralleling the lower dam (now only a memory) offered a way for people to keep their feet dry when crossing the stream. Mainly, though, it was for servicing the dam that ponded water upstream or running a sawmill and a turbine to generate the village’s first electricity.”

This is a direct quote from the book History of Sartell, Minnesota Lumber, Paper, Valves and Progress A Century of Progress Welcoming a Century of Promise. Pages 142-143

Helpful definitions

Fording= the act of crossing a stream or river by wading or in a car or on a horse

Spate= the occurrence of a water flow resulting from sudden rain or melting snow

The "Little White Bridge" at the Watab and Mississippi River until 1980.

Lower Dam on the Watab

Upper Dam at the Grist Mill on Watab. The hill in the background is where 1st Street North is currently.

A Log Jam on the Mississippi

Sauk Rapids Sentinel, June 16,1885

"Probably the largest log jam in the history of lumbering on the Upper Mississippi River, formed above the dam at this place, last Saturday. the jam extended from bank to bank, and up the river to the Stowell place. Logs and telegraph poles were piled up solidly and apparently inextricably and formed a solid bridge across the river as far as the jam extended. The aspect was grand, and at the same time threatened danger to the dam, bridge and other property below, and the water in the river backed up and raised from four to five feet.

Early Sunday morning, a small crew of lumbermen arrived and commenced work at the head of the dam, but for the greater part of the day their labors did not show to be of much avail.

Hundreds of people thronged the river banks and also crossed over on the logs. About 8 o'clock p.m. on Sunday; however, the labors of the lumbermen, aided by the accumulated volume of water, were awarded, and the immense body of logs started. In a few moments they commenced running over the dam and down the rapids below, afforded one of the grandest spectacular scenes that could well be imagined.

Surging, bounding and grinding in their irresistible onward course, the scene was truly awe-inspiring. Fortunately, no damage was done to either dam or other property. It is estimated that there were 40 million feet of logs in this jam"

Where Rivers Merge, Stories from the History of Sartell, MN. William Towner Morgan page 22

The building of the new concrete bridge across the Mississippi River.