The bridge was built by the Wisconsin Central Railroad. The WC built a rail line from Milwaukee to Ashland, running more or less north and south. As Minneapolis continued to grow into a regional metropolis, the WC desired to tap into that market. A rail line was extended from the existing WC line in Marshfield to Chippewa Falls, and then into the Twin Cities. This line was completed and opened in 1884.
The Saint Croix river was still a problem. A smaller bridge was built across the river at the bottom of the valley. Trains had to face very steep grades on each side of the river crossing. This resulted in shorter trains and required the use of helper engines. The problem was addressed in the early 1900s when famous bridge engineer C.A.P. Turner was brought in. He designed and supervised the building of the big metal monster that survives to this day.
The Wisconsin Central turned over its operations to the Saint Paul and Sault Ste Marie in 1909. The WC went bankrupt in 1932, and the Sault Ste Marie continued to run the WC lines for the bankruptcy trustees. Finally, in 1960, three railroads operating in Wisconsin merged to form the Soo Line Railroad. The Soo continued to run trains over the high bridge. The Soo Line eventually became a part of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, and later took over its rival Milwaukee Road, which also ran trains from Milwaukee to the Twin Cities. The Canadian Pacific decided to downsize and refocus, so the old Wisconsin Central lines were sold to the Canadian National in 2001. As a result, the CN now operates trains over the Arcola High Bridge.
The Arcola High Bridge was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1977. Experts have called this bridge the most spectacular multi-span steel arch bridge in the world. Others compare the magnificent steel work to that of Eiffel's creations in France. Despite the history and national listing, this amazing bridge is all but unknown in the Twin Cities area, and it is virtually impossible to get a glimpse of the structure without trespassing or taking to the water.
The east abutment of the Arcola High Bridge can be visited with only minimal trespassing. Starting at Stillwater, travel east on WI-64 to Somerset, and exit at the County VV ramp. Follow the local roads that parallel the railroad line going west until you reach the edge of the river bluffs. You will find a spot to park. A short trail leads to end of the bridge.
The west riverbank can be visited by following a DNR bird watching trail. There is a small parking area on the side of the Arcola Trail road several miles north of Stillwater. The path to the riverbank is about 4/5 of a mile. In addition, it drops 220 feet, so be prepared for a healthy climb back out of the river valley. The bridge views, however, are worth the effort. The photo above is an example of the views from the west riverbank.
Update—on a sad note, a 20 year old woman was attempting to cross the Arcola High Bridge around 1:00 AM on August 10, 2008, when a plank on the walkway gave out. She fell 200 feet to the ground. Responders pronounced the woman dead at the scene. The 20 year old male that she was with did not fall.
Update—security at the east end of the bridge has been tightened considerably. I have heard reports of regular patrols, video cameras, and motion sensors. Anyone who walks down to the railroad tracks or out to the bridge abutment risks a trespassing fine of up to $500. Local law enforcement agencies have made security at the bridge site a priority, and they can and do respond very quickly.