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Highway 210 through Jay Cooke State Park reopens

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An RV leads several other motor vehicles up a hill on Minnesota Highway 210 between a new retaining wall and a stabilized hillside in Jay Cooke State Park on Wednesday, Oct. 4, shortly after the state reopened the section of highway. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service2 / 8
Aaron Gunderson, the Highway 210 project manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, drives along the section of the highway that reopened on Wednesday, Oct. 4. The hill he’s driving up includes stabilized slopes and retaining walls. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service3 / 8
Travis Davidsavor, senior geotechnical engineer with Barr Engineering, and Jay Cooke State Park naturalist Kristine Hiller walk by a new retaining wall along Minnesota Highway 210 above the St. Louis River before the highway was officially reopened on Wednesday, Oct. 4. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service4 / 8
An instrument station with solar panels and instruments designed to detect even tiny movements of Minnesota Highway 210 stands next to the highway. It is one of several such stations. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service5 / 8
Motorists travel on the section of Minnesota Highway 210 the state reopened Wednesday morning, Oct. 4. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service6 / 8
A section of hillside above the reopened section of Minnesota Highway 210 slide because of recent rainfalls the area has received. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service7 / 8
A motorists drives on a section of the reopened Minnesota Highway 210 protected by retaining walls on both the uphill and downhill sides of the road. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service8 / 8

DULUTH, Minn. — Dave Jones made the trek east from tiny Jacobson in Aitkin County to ride Minnesota Highway 210 on Wednesday, Oct. 4, as it reopened through Jay Cooke State Park for the first time since the historic 2012 flood devastated the roadway with mudslides and washouts.

"We're just a bunch of retired old farts who get together and ride every Wednesday," he said. "We thought, 'Geez, let's do this today.' "

They weren't alone. Corkscrewing along the St. Louis River and bathed by the sun as it was for its reopening, the road presents one of the region's most spectacular jaunts. As soon as the blockades were removed in the Fond du Lac neighborhood of Duluth, vehicles started trickling, then streaming through the park. The instant response stood as proof that the roadway was never far from the consciousness of people who enjoy a good drive.

"This is great," said Aaron Gunderson, the Highway 210 project manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. "People want to use this road."

A public survey from MnDOT prior to undertaking the two-year, $21.4-million project showed "overwhelming support" for reopening the road, Gunderson said.

That didn't mean there weren't doubters.

"I was convinced I'd never drive it again," said longtime park naturalist Kristine Hiller, who toured the reconstructed roadway along with the media and several members of the design and contractor teams responsible for fortifying the myriad slopes compromised by a storm characterized as a 500-year event.

Hiller replayed the events of June 19-20, 2012, out loud: the 8½ inches of rain that fell on top of the 23 inches total which had come in the month before the storm — saturating the park and creating a recipe for the flooding and mudslides that uprooted swaths of mature trees and either buried the road in places or broke through it in others.

Over her shoulder Wednesday, a bloated river raged as the result of heavy rainfall earlier in the week. It was rushing at 13,700 cubic feet per second, she said, well above the seasonal average of 350 — but paling in comparison to the 55,000 cubic feet per second which allowed the river to swallow and wipe out the park's hallmark swinging pedestrian bridge.

From that devastation, MnDOT hurried to supply triage with separate projects — restoring partial use of Highway 210 from the west through Carlton, which allowed Minnesota Power access to its hydroelectric properties and park users access to the visitor center.

Until this week, the final 3.3 miles of Highway 210 leading into the Fond du Lac neighborhood had been the residence of contractors. Their work, finally on display, shone brightly under the day's ideal conditions. The roadway features the exact same alignment as before, Gunderson said, even down to the hairpin turn that frames the steep gully which rises above Gill Creek.

Travis Davidsavor is a senior geotechnical engineer for Barr Engineering Co. in Duluth, and he explained the reason why the road is almost singular in northern Minnesota and reminiscent of the twisting canyon roads of the American West.

"This is some of the most erosive soil in Minnesota," Davidsavor said, explaining that the roadway rises, hundreds of feet in some places, above the river and its characteristic rock formations. It's the erosion of the soil that creates the slopes, hills and aesthetically capturing vistas, he said, and it's the soil that presented Davidsavor and his team with scores of challenges.

Drivers and bicyclists will note the solar panels spaced along the roadway which, sources said, power the largest and most elaborate slope monitoring system in the Midwest. The monitors will trigger alerts in the event that one of the 74 slopes which were upgraded along the route moves or shifts as little as a millimeter.

The roadway is protected by larger culverts than before and a variety of types of retaining walls — some seen and some hidden by vegetation which figures to mature and fortify the slopes long after their three-year warranty is up.

"This job was all about controlling water — both surface water and groundwater," Gunderson said.

In doing the work, MnDOT located about 1,000 meters' worth of segments of the Grand Portage trail, which runs parallel to the river and mostly on the opposite side of Highway 210.

For fur traders, the trail was a way to avoid calamity on the river. For engineers, it was an obstacle that needed to be undisturbed and worked around.

"We had some of the most brilliant engineering minds in the Twin Ports working on this project," Gunderson said, turning his MnDOT pickup in the direction of a ribbon-cutting ceremony five years in the making.