New St. Croix River bridge was John Soderberg’s passion

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Half a century ago, John Soderberg led the charge to save the Willow River in Wisconsin.

Soderberg, the longtime president and CEO of First National Community Bank in New Richmond, Wis., founded Restore Our Willow River and spearheaded the creation of the Upper Willow Rehabilitation District, which required the signatures of 51 percent of the affected landowners; Soderberg got 62 percent.

The skills Soderberg gained during that process were instrumental in his work as a stakeholder in the development of the new St. Croix River bridge south of Stillwater, said his son, Scott Soderberg, who lives in Hudson.

“He knew you had to involve all the stakeholders,” Scott Soderberg said. “You had to have people who were knowledgeable and include people who were opposed to it to get things done. Those efforts really paid off for him when it came to the bridge.”

The bridge project was “dead as a doornail” when Soderberg joined the St. Croix River Crossing Coalition, a 28-member stakeholder group that forged compromises for the long-debated bridge proposal in the early 2000s, Scott Soderberg said.

“He had had enough of people talking about it, and it not going anywhere,” Scott Soderberg said. “He knew that there was no other alternative. There was no gray area there, and he made it absolutely his mission to see it built. It took an act of Congress and the president’s signature to get it done, but he persevered when this thing was dead, dead, dead all those times. That, I think, is probably the greatest gift that he gave to this community. This doesn’t happen without his perseverance through those times. It was the signature achievement of his life.”

John Soderberg died March 13 at the Deerfield Gables Care Center in New Richmond of complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. He was 88.

Bridge effort began in 1996

Traffic across the new St. Croix River bridge begins on Aug. 2, 2017. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

During an interview with the Pioneer Press in 2017, just a few weeks before the bridge opened, Soderberg said he had a ready answer for people who asked him if the bridge was going to be built in their lifetime. “My answer was, ‘Yes, but take good care of yourself,’” Soderberg, then 83, said.

Soderberg began working on getting a new St. Croix River bridge in 1996 because he “got so sick and tired of hearing about it,” he told the Pioneer Press.

As others got on board, momentum built, according to Soderberg. “It just kind of picked up, and the snowball got bigger and bigger,” he said. “They finally figured out … how nice it would be if you would save between 15 and 20 minutes just driving through Stillwater and that there wouldn’t be all those big trucks going through downtown.”

Soderberg was so moved by the sight of the new bridge that he “almost broke down and cried” when he first saw it, he told the Hudson Star-Observer in 2017. “It’s a beautiful sight. It’s got a pedestrian and bicycle walkway. I stood there in the middle of the bridge and looked north up the river and watched the water coming down. It’s the most beautiful scene I’ve ever had.”

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