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A History of the Phillips Street Bridge

Photo shows the original Phillip Street Bridge around 1910, as seen from the Rhinelander Paper Mill stack.
Photo Credit Pioneer Park Historic Complex
Photo shows the original Phillip Street Bridge around 1910, as seen from the Rhinelander Paper Mill stack.

One of the many construction projects in Rhinelander that was completed this year was a water main repair, causing the closure of the Phillip Street Bridge, located behind the Rhinelander Paper Mill. This bridge has collapsed not once, but twice in its history.

After the Davenport Street Bridge was completed in 1890, the Phillips Street Bridge followed in 1904. The two-span bridge was constructed to cross the Wisconsin River, and paper mill canal, over the area where the dam is, which holds the Wisconsin River back forming Boom Lake.

The first time the bridge gave way was Sunday, June 10th, 1935. A State Conservation Department truck towing a trailer with heavy equipment was attempting to cross the Wisconsin River. Keep in mind the Kemp Street Bridge wasn’t built until 1956.

LaVern Larsen of Tomahawk was hauling a tractor, a backfiller, and other gear, from the Ranger Station at Rhinelander, to Tomahawk. LaVerne had the sense not to cross the Davenport Street bridge as the Soo Line trestle was too low for his vehicle, Rhinelander locals, and some out of the area drivers are all too familiar with it’s low clearance, so he inquired about using the Phillip Street Bridge. He was told he could do so at his own risk. The original bridge was built with metal spans, and wood decking, with horses and wagons in mind. Much had changed in the time since it was built, and 30 years later when Mr. Larsen needed to cross with his 20 tons of equipment.

Alas, the old bridge couldn’t bear the weight, and as he crossed the west span over the canal, it collapsed into the water. Luckily LaVerne walked away uninjured. The bridge components were dismantled, the steelworks straightened, put back into place, and repairs made relatively quickly.

The second incident occurred almost 30 years later. On Monday, September 9th, 1963, a Musson gravel truck driven by Leon Kukanich of Eagle River was almost across the west span, the same span that gave LaVerne a scare years earlier, when the bridge buckled. The trucks back tires were still on the bridge when it fell away beneath, but Leon was able to stay on the brakes, keeping the truck from falling into the canal. 12 year olds Barbara Bruyette, and Lois Lemmens, were walking on the bridge when it went down, but managed to avoid injury.

The City of Rhinelander was aware of the bridges precarious condition, and was working toward replacing it since 1962. Representative Alvin E O’Konski was called upon to assist in securing federal funding for a new Phillip Street bridge. The collapse moved things along quickly and a new bridge was installed, with a dedication ceremony held on July 9th, 1964.

That bridge is now coming up on it’s 60th birthday, and we hope it continues to do it’s job, so history doesn’t repeat itself a third time.

Sources: Rhinelander Daily News Articles 1935, 1963, 1964.

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Kerry Bloedorn joined WXPR in 2022 as the host of A Northwoods Moment in History. A local historian, Director of Pioneer Park Historical Complex for the City of Rhinelander and writer for The New North Magazine, he loves digging into the past and sharing his passion for history with the Northwoods community.