MILAN — The Lac qui Parle Flood Control Project was the largest flood control construction project in Minnesota history.
As many as 1,500 workers with the Works Progress Administration helped build it in the late 1930s, according to Susan Granger and Scott Kelly, co-founders of Gemini Research of Morris.
The two historians last week were at the Milan Bridge over Lac qui Parle Lake west of Milan to watch some local history in the making. There, Matt Thompson and a crew are putting together what could go down in history as this area's largest outdoor jigsaw puzzle.
Thompson is the project manager with Artistic Stone and Concrete, St. Joseph. The company is responsible for putting back together the 24,000 square feet of granite stone riprap that WPA workers had placed together by hand more than 80 years ago.
The stones vary in weight according to their use. Some are 30 to 60 pounds in weight, but many, many others are in the 80- to 120-pound range.
The crew hasn’t tallied them up, but Thompson said 18,000 is a good estimate of the number of individual stones being put back together like one giant puzzle.
The riprap protects the abutments and causeways on both sides of the bridge. The east side stonework includes rock stairways providing access to the lake.
“It was meant to be a little snazzier,” said Kelly of the east side stonework.
Located adjacent to Randall’s Milan Beach Resort, the east side also offers a swimming beach and boat landing built by the Works Progress Administration.
Back in the day, the workers used jackhammers and chisels to split the granite from local quarries. The riprap was hand fit in an almost interlocking pattern, according to a report on the Lac qui Parle project authored by Granger and Kelly.
“Hand-fit riprap, while labor-intensive to install, used fewer stones than dumped riprap to provide similar bank protection, and was preferable in some situations for the way it withstood the action of water and ice,” they wrote.
Thompson found proof of how well it worked when he began his work more than a year ago. For more than 80 years, including through eight major flood events, the hand-fit riprap held together and protected the banks. His crew found only one area where concrete had been poured to shore up eroded riprap.
Before they removed a single stone, the Artistic Stone and Concrete crew took “thousands” of digital photos of the stonework. They kept the stones together in roughly eight-foot by eight-foot sections. The stones are being put back in place in the same areas from which they were taken using the photos as a guide.
They started removing the stones as the Robert Schroeder Company began the $7.7 million bridge replacement project in the spring of 2019. Last year proved to be a wet one with high waters, and it delayed the project.
The new bridge is now open to traffic. Thompson said a crew of eight to nine are working each week on the stonework. He estimates that they are about 40 percent complete. He is confident the work will be completed in early October, if not by the end of September.
Today’s workers have the advantage of power machinery the WPA workers did not. All the same, there is still a lot of hand work. To workers at the site, progress is measured in the inches.
“It’s what I love about it,” said Thompson. “It’s tedious, and not very easy, but it’s rewarding when it’s done.”
Examples of the company’s work can be seen at Gooseberry State Park and the Garrison Concourse on the west side of Lake Mille Lacs. Both represent similar restoration projects of stonework completed by Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps workers eight decades ago.
The Lac qui Parle Flood Control history is well worth the preservation, according to Granger and Kelly. The project was intended to provide both flood control and to store water for dry years.
It spanned a length of the Minnesota River 62.5 miles long, and included the construction of the Marsh Lake and Lac qui Parle dams, a six-mile-long diversion of the Chippewa River, and development of the Lac qui Parle State Park. The project took place from 1934 through 1942.