3.7.08

The Rise and Fall of the Saint Paul Smokestack

[Cameron Diaz frolicking 'neath the High Bridge smokestack in a publicity still for Feeling Minnesota.]

Probably the only movie to feature the word “Minnesota” prominently in its title was 1996’s Cameron Diaz/Keanu Reeves vehicle Feeling Minnesota. (Even the Coen Brother’s own ode to the North Star, set entirely in Minnesota, chose a North Dakotan town to serve as a namesake.) It was an escape tale set in rust belt Twin Cities, as Keanu's character rescues Cameron, Bonnie & Clyde style from her working class home underneath the giant looming smokestack of the Saint Paul high bridge plant. In the film the stack serves as a symbolic backdrop, standing in for the forces of urban poverty and geographical isolation that are just as much a part of our fine state as Oldenberg's Spoonbridge or Keillor’s magical lake.

I mention it only because that smokestack is no longer with us, having fallen to the forces of gravity and progress last week. I grew up in Mendota Heights, not too far from the High Bridge that joins Saint Paul's West Side with Downtown and Summit Avenue. I used to ride my bike down in Lilydale Park, have birthday picnics on the Cherokee bluffs, and spent a lot of time looking down Smith Avenue towards the capitol dome. The giant ugly concrete stack stands tall in my memories like a pretzel stick in a bowl full of Combos.



[The stack falls like a deck of cards.]

As a young and impressionable child, I attended the demolition of the High Bridge. I can barely remember the long-winded event, but I recall the excitement of going down to the bluffs to stand with the crowd as the huge, spartan bridge fell into the river. Likewise, I was hanging around the Mississippi last August when the Interstate 35-W bridge performed a similar (though unplanned) plummet. Apart from the obvious tragedy, their losses don't bother me.

But, silly as it sounds, I am worried about losing the Saint Paul Smokestack. Ugly as it was, I loved the way it served as a thermometer on the coldest Winter days, where the colder it got, the longer the trail of steam would extend from its tip, tracing a smoky finger across January's pale skies.

But more importantly, the stack served to remind the city where our energy came from. When Xcel made the decision to replace the two most visible (and smallest) of its coal plants with cleaner, natural gas plants, it was good news. It alleviated some real pollution injustices, like emissions of particulate matter that causes asthma.

But on the other hand, the Twin Cities are still just as dependent on coal-fired power as ever before. Much of tour energy comes from the huge coal plant in Becker, which is many times larger than the two that were recently shut down. The only difference now is that those coal emissions are conveniently located fifty miles North, far from the glistening crowd.

When I was in High School I went on a school trip to Japan, where I stayed with host families in the Osaka and Kyoto areas for a month. The thing that surprised me most when I arrived on Kyushu's densely packed shores was that everywhere you looked you saw the signs of factories, shipyards, and industry. Red and white smokestacks towered over the clean and modern homes, while the green mountains rose into the background. The Japanese seemed to live hand in hand with their industrial base.

For me, the Saint Paul smokestack was a reminder that every time we flip a lightswitch, a little puff of smoke comes out of a chimney. Let's just hope that new, smoke-free Saint Paul skyline doesn't mean we're putting our environmental responsibilities out of sight and out of mind.


[You think Saint Paul had it bad? The nickel-smelting Inco smokestack in Sudbury, Ontario is the largest smokestack in the Western Hemisphere. -- img. fm. Ann Brown]


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