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After all-night effort, Highway 61 reopens

Crews worked to remove a railroad overpass across Minnesota Highway 61 near Taconite Harbor late Thursday, Aug. 31, into Friday after it was hit and damaged by a truck. (Minnesota Department of Transportation photo)1 / 2
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TACONITE HARBOR, Minn. — Minnesota Highway 61 reopened to traffic at Taconite Harbor at about noon Friday, Sept. 1, after an all-night effort to remove a railroad overpass that was struck and damaged by an oversized truck the previous day.

Safety concerns about the damaged bridge — and then the fast-moving operation to remove the span — closed the highway and forced North Shore traffic onto a 27-mile, mostly gravel detour route just before the start of the busy Labor Day weekend.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation, Lakehead Constructors and bridge owner Cleveland-Cliffs teamed up to remove the span and reopen the well-traveled highway ahead of the peak weekend traffic.

The parties involved with the bridge removal already had good working relationships, and that showed, said Minnesota Department of Transportation spokeswoman Stephanie Smith-Christensen.

"It was pretty amazing, actually," she said. "Cleveland-Cliffs, MnDOT and the contractors all came together pretty quickly and made decisions that needed to be made."

Many workers who had shifts on Thursday ended up working through the night as well.

"I'm sure there was a lot of coffee involved," Smith-Christensen said. "Everybody had a positive attitude."

The Minnesota State Patrol reported Friday that the driver of the truck that hit the bridge at about 1 p.m. Thursday was cooperating with authorities, and that any citations in the incident were pending further investigation.

No one was injured in the incident, MnDOT reported.

'Full of people'

It was a memorable Friday morning in the community of Finland, which was on the detour route not far from a transition from paved to gravel roadway.

"There's traffic like you can't believe. My gas pumps are just full of people," said Don Rabold, owner of Don's Auto Repair and Mobil Gas Station. "Everybody has been asking questions and are a little upset by the dirt traffic. Business has been unbelievable."

Rabold was happy to hear Friday morning that the damaged bridge had been taken down and that crews were just working on clearing the debris.

"That makes me happy because I've had enough," he joked.

As he talked on the phone, Rabold could be heard telling a customer where the restrooms are.

"I've said that a hundred times today," he said.

MnDOT got the detour into place — using Cook County Road 1, Lake County Road 7, Lake County Road 8 and Minnesota Highway 1 — on Thursday night, after several hours of flagging traffic past the damaged bridge while keeping a close eye on the span.

Finland also saw an uptick in traffic for several weeks in the summer of 2014, when MnDOT put in place a planned detour of Highway 61 in the Little Marais area due to road construction. That detour followed State Highway 1 and County Road 6, and was entirely paved.

Bridge background

The overpass that was hit was the middle of three railroad bridges that cross Highway 61 in the vicinity of Taconite Harbor. They were part of a roughly 75-mile rail line that brought taconite pellets from Hoyt Lakes to Taconite Harbor from 1956 until 2001.

The line was acquired by Cleveland-Cliffs after the bankruptcy of LTV Steel Mining Co., and has been inactive in recent years.

Duane Hill, district engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation based in Duluth, said MnDOT and Cleveland-Cliffs had had discussions about removing that particular span, which had a clearance of about 14 feet, 6 inches above the highway but was signed as 14 feet, 1 inch.

It had a history of being struck, including being damaged several years ago to the point that half of the bridge — two girders crossing the highway — was removed, leaving the narrow span that was hit and then removed this week.

As it turns out, a MnDOT survey crew was working in the vicinity of the middle overpass when it was hit Thursday, developing a plan to replace it — and they immediately reported the incident.

"When we looked at the bridge and realized that the beam was cracked beyond having any carry capacity, there's no way to calculate that it was safe, so we decided that we had to do something about it right away," Hill said.

The other two railroad overpasses at Taconite Harbor have clearances of 15 feet, 6 inches and 20 feet, 6 inches — they don't have a history of getting hit, Hill said. He noted that bridges built today must have a clearance of at least 16 feet, 4 inches.

Hill said MnDOT issues permits for Highway 61 for trucks more than 13 feet tall, and that some of those oversized trucks had to be routed around the low-clearance bridge at Taconite Harbor, using the detour that was put in place this week.

None of those detoured trucks, Hill said, would have had to be rerouted if the middle overpass at Taconite Harbor were not there.

Back in Finland on Friday morning, Rabold reported that "I have four pumps that are full right now, and there are a couple of cars waiting. There are people all over the place. ...

"Every weekend is busier than heck here, but now it's just adding more fuel to the fire that's going on here. There are people just walking around here that are totally lost and don't know where they are at."

Adelle Whitefoot

Adelle Whitefoot is a Michigan native who moved to Minnesota in Sept. 2014 when she started as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle. She graduated from Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Mich., in 2012 with a bachelor's in English writing and has been a professional photographer since 2011. Whitefoot is the night general assignments reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

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