Bong Bridge under construction between Duluth and Superior, 1982 (News Tribune file photo)

By Andrew Krueger for Area Voices

Heavier-than-expected traffic on the High Bridge — particularly truck traffic — and the deterioration of the Arrowhead Bridge were among the reasons that city and state officials started looking at a new span linking West Duluth and Superior in the late 1960s.

In 1973, federal officials approved the route of the new high bridge carrying U.S. Highway 2 across the St. Louis River; the span initially was referred to as the Arrowhead Bridge, the same name as the one it was replacing. The bridge would link up with Interstate 35 and 46th Avenue West in Duluth, and Belknap Street in Superior.

The design was approved in 1976. The new bridge’s curving shape was a necessity because its land connections did not line up at right angles with the shipping channel in that location; the S-curve allowed for the center span to be perpendicular to the channel.

Bong Bridge under construction between Duluth and Superior, circa 1982 (News Tribune file photo)

Ground was broken in September 1979, with Minnesota Gov. Al Quie and Wisconsin Gov. Lee Dreyfus on hand to turn shovels of dirt.

The Duluth and Superior city councils agreed to name the span after Major Richard I. Bong, the ace World War II fighter pilot from Poplar who died in 1945.

The bridge faced delays in federal funding that pushed back the completion date, and there was a controversy about the possible use of foreign steel in the project.

After five years of work and about $70 million, the Bong Bridge opened on Oct. 25, 1984. The federal government picked up 80 percent of the cost, with Minnesota and Wisconsin each chipping in 10 percent.

An aerial view shows the old Arrowhead Bridge (foreground) and the new Richard Bong Memorial Bridge on Oct. 24, 1984. (Joey McLeister / News-Tribune)

A ceremony to officially dedicate the bridge in Bong’s honor took place in July 1985. Members of Bong’s family, members of his old unit, the 49th Fighter Group, and other veterans joined local and state leaders for the event; four F-15 fighters flew overhead in formation.

“As we pass over this bridge from now on, I hope that people will remember one thing: There was a price tag attached to it — and I don’t mean construction,” Superior Mayor Bruce Hagen told the crowd.

The Bong Bridge extends about 8,395 feet from one side of the St. Louis River to the other — 425 feet longer than the Blatnik Bridge. It’s about 11,800 feet long when approaches are included; in comparison, the Golden Gate Bridge is 8,981 feet long, approaches included. The Bong Bridge gives a clearance of about 120 feet for ships passing beneath the center span.

The Bong Bridge in August 2016. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

The center point of the center span is about 4 feet east of the official Minnesota-Wisconsin state line.

The bridge required 82,000 cubic yards of concrete and 31,000 tons of steel — including 54 miles of steel piles, with each pile driven 200 to 250 feet into the river bottom.

As of 2013, the bridge was seeing an average of about 15,000 vehicles a day. With required maintenance, the bridge was designed to last about 75 years; it underwent its first major maintenance project in 2014-15.

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Aerial photo of the Bong Bridge, looking toward Superior, in 2010. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

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