While cleaning and putting the finishing touches on the bank prior to reopening last Thursday, Cathy and I discovered a big (and heavy) surprise in the vault; a cast iron sign with the words “DESIGNED AND BUILT BY HORACE E. HORTON ROCHESTER, MINN.” After a moment of deliberation we concluded that we were not in fact in Rochester, begging the question, what in the world was this behemoth doing in our vault? Finding an undocumented object with no apparent significance or provenance in a museum is far more common than most people would guess, but that is one of the great things about working in a museum; there is always a mystery waiting to be solved. This was my mission; find out where this sign came from and what it was doing at NHS.

A quick Google search revealed that Horace Ebenezer Horton was a bridge builder from Rochester, Minnesota active from 1867 until the early 1900s. Horton specialized in wrought iron bridges. With three bridges (not counting the pedestrian bridge) in town it seemed the trail was getting warmer. Further research told us that two of Northfield’s bridges were built in 1886, when Horton was building bridges throughout the Midwest. With this knowledge and some helpful tips from our followers on social media the evidence was mounting that the sign was in fact connected to Northfield history. City Council minutes from 1885 and 1886 put the remaining pieces of the puzzle together. In September 1885, a petition was presented to the council for a bridge at 5th Street and Mayor C.W. Mann appointed councilmen B.F. Miller, D.H. Lord, and former First National Bank teller Frank J. Wilcox to a committee to investigate the bridge matter. After consulting with civil engineers Hoff & Spangberg, the bridge committee recommended the construction of bridges at 2nd and 5th Streets for a cost of about $10,000, per the recommendations of Hoff & Spangberg. The committee felt that the bridges were, “urgently needed to meet the demands of travel and business in our prosperous and growing city.”

2nd Street Bridge, 1888

An election was held on November 24, 1885 to determine whether or not the city would construct a bridge on 5th Street. 475 Northfield voters voted for the bridge and 101 voted against, in addition a petition was made for a second bridge and on December 12, 1885 a second bridge was voted to be constructed on 1st Street. Bids for construction were received until January 9, 1886 and the city advertised in major papers. The New York Daily Tribune is named specifically in Council meeting minutes. Horace Horton was awarded the contract to construct the two bridges on January 16, 1886.

If you were reading closely, you may be asking yourself, “If the second bridge was to be built on 1st Street, how did it get to 2nd Street?” After petitions were received from citizens regarding the location of the second bridge, another election was held in which the council would, “submit to legal voters of this city bon the location of the lower bridge.”

The location of the lower bridge was a contentious matter; an article in the Northfield News on January 2nd, 1886 implored the council to let voters decide the location of the second bridge. On January 12, 1886 citizens voted to build the second bridge at St. Olaf Avenue, narrowly beating out 2nd Street by a vote of 212 to 205. First Street received eighteen votes. By February 1886 the location, the builder, and the $15,000 bond had been set, there would be one more twist in the bridge matter. On February 20, 1886 the council voted to build the lower bridge at 2nd Street instead of St. Olaf Avenue. It is not explicitly stated in city records why the change was made but it is possible it had to do with the initial survey by Hoff & Spangberg.

We can see now how the building of the bridges at 5th Street and 2nd Street have affected the development of Northfield, and it is here that we find the historical relevance of the sign. The sign indicating Horace Horton as the builder of these bridges is a symbol and relic from a pivotal moment in Northfield’s history. How would Northfield look today with a bridge at 1st Street? Or St. Olaf Avenue? We can never know exactly how Northfield would have changed if the lower bridge had been built at either of those locations but it is clear that things would be drastically different. We can ask, what buildings may still be standing between Division and the Cannon River, or Highway 3 and the river, where the bridge approach is? How would the development of businesses on Division have changed? The seemingly irrelevant hunk of iron hiding in our bank vault has proven to be a significant part of this chapter of Northfield’s history.