By Jessica Branch
Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota
In May 2009 Tom's 10th-grade American history class at Simley High had taken their end-of-year exams but still had several weeks before school was out. So when their teacher mentioned that the historic Rock Island Swing Bridge was scheduled for demolition in June, the students unanimously voted to spend their last month figuring out a way to save it. Built in 1894, the double-decker span had once been used as an escape route by John Dillinger as he fled the FBI. After the bridge was closed off to cars in 1999 for safety reasons, it had also become a favorite local hangout. "Kids went there to skateboard, throw rocks across the water or just enjoy the view of the Mississippi River," says Tom. "It was a real part of our community.?
With the deadline looming, Tom's class had to act fast. They organized a Sunday morning breakfast at a restaurant near the bridge, and Tom created a Facebook page to rally support. The students invited everyone they knew via e-mail and church announcements, directed them to the page and urged them to start spreading the news. Their efforts paid off—the event was packed and raised over $1,000. "The response was great, even though we set it up so quickly," says Tom. He and his classmates then went to the city council, where they gave a presentation on the bridge's history and suggested that it be turned into a recreational pier and park. The proposal made it to the state legislature, and that June Governor Tim Pawlenty signed a moratorium on the demolition. By this point various historic and preservation groups had joined the cause. In October, the city of Inver Grove Heights took ownership of the bridge and hired engineers to refurbish it by building an observation deck and fishing pier—mission accomplished.
The new Rock Island Swing Bridge had its grand opening last June. There's a marker stone at one end that gives special thanks to those who helped save the landmark, including the students of Simley High. "If it hadn't been for us—just a bunch of high school kids—it would have been gone forever," says Tom. "It's the best thing we ever did."