Casualties of Duluth’s Aerial Bridge

H. L. Dresser’s car is pulled from the Duluth Ship Canal, July, 1916. (Image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection)

The history of Duluth’s Aerial Bridge is laced with tragic incidents. The first tragedy to occur on the bridge was the accidental death of Duluth pioneer and bridge operator Thomas White. On December 19, 1918, White—substituting for vacationing bridge supervisor Leonard Green—climbed to the top of the bridge to perform maintenance, mostly oiling the trucks and pulleys.  No one witnessed how the accident occurred, but as the ferry car left the South Pier and headed across, White was somehow pulled into a pulley, crushing his chest. Some passengers waiting to board heard White scream, but the sound of the ferry in motion prevented the operator from immediately hearing his cries. He was trapped ninety feet above the ship canal. It took a firefighter and two of his fellow bridge operators quite some time to free White from the bridgeworks and lower him down by ropes, and he died just minutes after reaching St. Luke’s Hospital. White was 57 years old and had lived in Duluth for over forty years. The funeral was held at his home at 1008 Lake Avenue South on Park Point, attended by his fellow members of Duluth Nest 1200, Order of the Owls. (Despite his death, White was summoned by the Duluth district court later in the month to serve jury duty in January, 1919.)

While maintaining the bridge had proved deadly to White, not a single accident involving the transfer bridge resulted in the death of a passenger. One incident did, however, result in the death of a horse. On July 28, 1916, Missabe & Northern Railway Chief Engineer H. L. Dresser drove his car off the approach to the Aerial Transfer Bridge and into the Duluth Ship Canal. Dresser claims he accidentally pressed the accelerator rather than the brake and, as the Duluth News Tribune reported, the car burst “through the steel barriers of the aerial bridge gate and hurl[ed] a horse and wagon ahead of it” and a stunned crowd of onlookers watched as “the auto and driver and the horse and wagon with a tremendous crashed plunged from sight beneath the waves.”

Dresser’s car had hit a one-horse delivery wagon owned by Bridgeman-Russell Creamery, which of course spooked the horse. According to the newspaper, “The struggling animal urged by the smashing battering ram behind broke through the steel gates as if they were paper and catapulted  high in the air. The machine leaped after that, turned a complete somersault.” James Ten Eyck, the Duluth Boat Club’s legendary rowing coach, happened to be waiting for the ferry when the accident occurred; he “stripped to his undergarments,” dove into the canal and secured a life line to Dresser, bringing him to safety. (The delivery wagon driver was standing on the approach and so was not propelled into the canal.) The horse never returned to the surface, as he was harnessed to the wagon, which essentially kept the animal anchored to the canal floor. The newspaper later reported that Dresser suffered a broken rib and “severe shock.” A dredge derrick later raise the car, wagon, and horse’s corpse.

The first accident related to the Aerial Lift Bridge occurred in May, 1930. As W. J. Odenthal of Killdeer, North Dakota, and his son were driving north across the bridge in the brand-new car he had just purchased, the bridge began rising to allow a freighter to pass. Mr. Odenthal hadn’t noticed the stop signs and warning bells telling him to stay off the bridge; while pointing out the sites to his son he had managed to drive past the gate before it dropped. When he reached the end of the span, he continued to drive straight off the bridge and, luckily, onto the pier below. Neither he nor his son were injured, but the car was totaled. Safety measures were later added, including gates at either approach to prevent cars from reaching the bridge.

Sadly, young men on the piers were involved in far more dangerous escapades, like trying to hitch a ride on the bridge—a problem that has plagued the operators since the bridge first lifted. On April 28, 1905—just weeks after the transfer bridge began operations—the Duluth News Tribune reported that “half a dozen boys of various ages” dodged the bridge operator, climbed on the girders below decks of the ferry car and rode the ferry clinging by their fingers just thirteen feet above the water. Alone at the controls, Adrian could do nothing to stop them. If they had lost their grip, the boys would certainly have drowned in the canal’s currents.

In 1934, seventeen-year-old Melvin Halverson, tried to hitch a ride on the lift bridge. Halverson, who was about to begin his senior year at Denfeld High School in West Duluth, grabbed the edge of a beam on the bottom of the span and held on as the bridge began to rise. Even with a good grip, a person can support his or her own body weight only so long—someone of average upper-body strength can hang from a pull-up bar for an average of between one and several minutes. Halverson’s grip was fleeting at best, and the bridge must stay in the raised position much longer than “a few minutes” to let a ship pass through. His arms gave out when he was thirty feet in the air. He fell to the pier, hit his head on the concrete, and died instantly.

(A fraternity at the University of Minnesota Duluth claims that at one point of its history, pledges were initiated into the fraternity by hanging onto the lift span with their hands, riding it to the top, waiting for the vessel to pass beneath the bridge, and then coming down with the span; it’s a great story, but it defies the laws of physics.)

Tragedy was narrowly avoided in December 1951, when sixteen year-old Minneapolis resident Beverly Brenner ignored warnings and stayed on the bridge’s sidewalk until after it began to raise. As the bridge moved upward, she panicked. Luckily the bridge was only eight feet above the pavement when she jumped. She suffered head injuries and an ambulance took her to St. Mary’s Hospital for tests.

In 1982 a nineteen-year-old man made the same mistake Melvin Halverson made in 1934: he tried to hang from the bridge as it raised. Frank Weber and his friend, Tom Hanna, both of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, were visiting the canal on a Sunday afternoon in September with their girlfriends. Weber, who Hanna described as “adventurous,” thought he could easily accomplish the feat. The bridge was lifting for a small sailboat, and Weber thought it would only raise about twenty feet and not stay up for long. He was wrong.

As Weber began his ascent, he called for Hanna to join him as both girls urged them not to. Hanna didn’t see his friend lose his grip, but when Weber began to fall Hanna rushed beneath him. “I just ran there to break his fall,” Hanna told the Duluth News-Tribune. Weber landed hard on Hanna, breaking his friend’s leg in the process. Hanna’s efforts were for naught; Weber died at the scene. A nursing supervisor at St. Luke’s Hospital said the young man “had so many injures that we are not sure which ones he died from.”

A story that has circulated among UMD fraternity members for years: “back in the day,” they say, one UMD frat’s initiation involved making pledges hang by their arms as the bridge lifted, wait for ship traffic to pass below, and riding down with the bridge. That feat is simply physically impossible. Please do not accept that last statement as a challenge.

As the 1990s began tragedy hit the bridge again in what is arguably the most notorious event in the bridge’s history. At 11:30 a.m. on a beautiful Sunday in June 1990, as the bridge prepared to lift to allow the Vista King to pass under it, fifty-year-old Barbara Ann Paplior got on despite the warning lights flashing and bells sounding. She may have been disoriented; her family later said she suffered from manic-depressive disorder and had experienced a psychotic episode just two days earlier. She was almost halfway across when she realized the bridge was rising—and she panicked. Witnesses told the news media that she screamed, “Help me! Somebody help me, please!”

If she would have stayed on the sidewalk and not moved, she could have safely rode up and back down on the bridge, but she apparently didn’t know that. She ran back toward the north approach and, when the bridge was thirty to forty feet above the ground, she leaned over and attempted to jump. But she became caught in a V of the bridge’s metalwork, facing west with her legs sticking out toward the lake. As the lift span continued upward, it carried Paplior toward the stationary north tower; dismembered by the rising bridge, she died instantly. Witnesses described the event as gruesome. The bridge’s operators were unaware of the mishap until after it had happened and witnesses called 911.