Aerial Bridge Operators

Bridge operator (and, later, supervisor)
Don Bowan greases one of the lift bridge’s massive sheaves (Image: Larry Lyons)

Two years after Robert O. Brown took the reins from Hass in 1968, he told reporters that as a kid growing up in Duluth’s West End he wished that someday he could work on the bridge—he rode the transfer bridge often as a youngster. After high school he served as a Merchant Marine and later worked for Clyde Iron before taking a job with Commercial Electric along with his predecessor, Al Hass. He worked with Hass on wiring the bridge’s electrical system during the 1929 conversion; while Hass got an operator’s gig out of the job, Brown had to take a job with Marshall-Wells and wait eleven years  before another bridge operator position opened up. It took another twenty-seven year before he became the Bridge Supervisor. (Over the years, “Superintendent” was changed to “Chief Bridge Operator” and ultimately “Bridge Supervisor.”)

Along with operating the bridge, Brown was known around Duluth for his knowledge of maritime history. Over the years he became the bridge’s unofficial spokesman. When Park Pointers voiced their frustration over the number of lifts the bridge made, it was Brown who met with them and explained the reasoning behind the lifting frequency. He also gave lectures on the bridge and its history to community groups. His love of history made him a key player in the development of the Lake Superior Marine Museum. “He was among the first to volunteer to gather artifacts and put up displays,” remembered museum curator C. Patrick Labadie in 1983. “I can’t begin to remember the number of times I consulted Bob for information about ships or the waterfront.”

Besides his roles as bridge boss and ambassador, Brown and his wife Vivian raised three sons and two daughters in their Park Point home, just two blocks south of the bridge. In 2005 his daughter Charlotte told the Duluth News Tribune, “We lived and breathed that bridge.” Brown and his wife retired to Phoenix in 1974, where he died ten years later. Upon his retirement he told the paper, “Never in my life have I had to drag my feet to go to work…it has been a wonderful career.”

If seniority had anything to do with it, it was a close call to pick Brown’s successor, but Harold Bilsey did have a right to claim an edge, even if it was only fifteen days’ worth. Bilsey lifted the bridge for the first time on September 16, 1946 Richard Lyons, October 1 of the same year. Bilsey took over from Brown, but Lyons took his turn as well, and both would serve as Bridge Supervisor for just two years, the shortest tenure of any of the bridge’s supervisors. In the end, Lyons put in twenty-three months and fifteen days more that his work companion of over thirty years.

Both men were lifelong Duluthians. Bilsey grew up in West Duluth and graduated from Denfeld High School in 1931. His father owned Bilsey Grocery in West Duluth, but when he died in 1925, Bilsey and his stepbrothers and mother were left to run the store; young Harold learned how to cut meat. In World War II he signed on with the Navy and served two years aboard the USS Iowa. He returned to Duluth with a taste for the sea, and after a brief stint with Coolerator took a job that allowed him to stay in close contact with ships and ore boats. The skills he learned in his father’s grocery never left him; even after he took the job as bridge operator, Bilsey moonlighted as a butcher. Bilsey and his wife Clara raised  two daughters in Duluth. After he retired in 1976 they moved to Apple Valley, Minnesota, to be closer to their daughter Barbara and her children. He died in 2003.

Lyons was also a Denfeld grad who signed on with the bridge after serving in World War II, but he was an Army man. His sons remember that he had stories upon stories about the bridge, many of them punctuated by Lyon’s well-developed sense of humor. He often gave bridge tours to classes of schoolchildren, and used to tell of one particularly serious teacher he had some fun with. When asked what an inbound freighter was carrying, he told her “post holes.” The teacher made sure each of her charges listened seriously. “How will the post holes be used?” she asked. “They wrap sheet metal around them and make heating ducts,” he replied, deadpan. He also pointed out that another ship was loaded with “bladeless knives without handles.” The teacher never got the joke, but Lyons and his fellow operators enjoyed a good laugh afterward.

Of course, Lyons took his job seriously as well. During a storm in 1975 (his sons believe it may have been November 10, the night the Edmund Fitzgerald sank), the high winds were causing the bridge to rock dramatically. Fearing for his life, the operator on duty climbed off the bridge and found shelter and a phone at the Army Reserve Center on Park Point, and then he called Lyons. Two of Lyons’ sons— grown men at this point—drove him down to the bridge. They parked right on the span and climbed to the operators house. Lowell Lyons told the Duluth News Tribune in 2005 that the wind speed gauge in the operator’s house read over one hundred miles per hour, and the canal’s waters came right through the bottom of the lift span’s grate-like roadway. Lowell jokes that their car “got a good wash” that night. Lyons retired in 1978. Lowell recalled how Lyons often told him, “You have to love what you do or it’s just not worth it.” And his dad obviously loved his job. “Dad was always so proud of it,” Lowell said. “He took pride in how well it ran.”

When Don Bowen took over as bridge supervisor after Lyons retired, he was just the sixth man to hold the title—but the fourth already in the 1970s. Unlike most of his predecessors, Bowen was not a lifelong Duluthian but a vagabond of sorts before landing his career job. He was born in the Zenith City, but grew up on the Iron Range, graduating from Cook High School. He lived in St. Paul, Chicago, California, and even Hawaii doing everything from driving truck to maintaining naval airplanes before landing back in Duluth. He took a bridge operator position in 1957.

On the bridge, Bowen earned a reputation for his ability to handle winter maintenance work in extreme cold. He said that despite its coal stove, the old steel operators house got plenty cold in the winter because of the icy winds that arrived at the bridge unabated once they cleared Spirit Mountain—or as he put it, the bridge was the wind’s “first barrier since the Duluth Zoo.” At least once he was called on to perform heroics beyond climbing the bridge in extreme cold to make repairs. Somehow a young girl had gotten about halfway across the lift span when it started to raise. She panicked and started to run. As the bridge raised, Bowen raced down the operators house stairs two at a time and chased after the girl. “I caught her right near the edge,” he told reporters. “But the bridge was forty feet off by that time and she was going to run right off.”

Bowen loved his job, but once joked with the Duluth News Tribune that “The trouble is, everyone in the city of Duluth is your boss. They all feel they own the bridge.” He recalled how he had once received a phone call in the middle of the night from a citizen who had said he heard a boat signal at least three times to lift the bridge and the bridge hadn’t responded. “Would we please raise it,” Bowen recalled him asking, “’cause he was a taxpayer and didn’t want his bridge busted.”

A year before he retired, Bowen joked with the Minneapolis Tribune that “As long as I get the bridge out of the way, I don’t get into trouble.” While he was staying out of trouble he and his wife Marion raised three children. After leaving the bridge in 1982 he retired to Arizona, where he died in February 2006.

Bowen left the bridge in the hands of a relative rookie, as far as bridge supervisors go. He and the three supervisors before him had each been on the bridge at least twenty years before becoming boss. But in 1982 Steve Douville had only a decade under his belt. Like many of his fellow bridge operators, he is a lifelong Duluthian and an old Navy man. His four-year stint in the service ended in 1972, just before he went to work raising the bridge. His brother-in-law had seen an ad for the job in the newspaper, and showed it to Douville. “That’s something you could do,” he had said. Ten years later Douville was in charge. During his tenure the bridge’s operations would go from being controlled by levers and belts to computers—and both systems had their problems.

Douville’s fellow operators have long been impressed by his problem-solving abilities. Bridge operator Jim Wall once said of his boss, “If something breaks and we don’t have it, he might know he has something at his house he can make work, and then he’ll go quick and get it.” It’s a good thing, then, that Douville was at the helm during and after two of the bridge’s most extensive renovations since it was converted in 1929. The refitting in 1986 caused more problems than it had solved, and Douville had to help figure out why.

Douville also witnessed a lot of mishaps, some of them tragic: a car/bus accident on the bridge as the bridge was about to lift for an incoming ship, the nineteen-year-old Grand Rapids man who died trying to hitch a ride, the woman who died in 1990 after panicking. He also encountered incidents in which the foolhardy got lucky: St. Cloud State college students trying to see how far out over the canal they could reach by “climbing” under the bridge’s lift span, the man who climbed one of the bridge’s towers and then crawled across the top span on a dare (twice!), and a Vista fleet pilot who tried to see how close his vessel could get to the bridge before it lifted (he misjudged and collided with the bridge; he lost his job and his pilot’s license.) There have also been many sailboat captains who have misjudged their mast height and collided with the bridge. In case the rigging becomes entangled with the bridge, the operators have a rule for sailboat collisions: no lifting until the vessel has cleared; they don’t want to lift a sailboat out of the water.

At the time of Douville’s retirement in 2005, Director of Public Works Dick Larson (Douville’s boss), emphasized not only Douville’s knack for fixing the bridge, but his character as well. “[Steve] lives and breathes the bridge, and really cares about it,” he told the Duluth News Tribune in 2005. “He’s going to be a hard guy to replace,” Wall added. “He is the bridge.”

Since his retirement, Douville and his wife Patty have remained in Duluth while their children Katheryn and Kevin attend college. So far Douville’s retirement been too busy for him to take the time to spend on any hobbies.

Larson may have thought the task of replacing Douville was difficult, but luckily he had another former Navy man on the bridge: Ryan Beamer. If you ever meet him, though, don’t start by joking, “I bet your job has its ups and downs.” The joke has been directed at bridge operators for years, and lazy copyeditors have relied on it as a headline grabber since at least the 1940s. But Beamer knew the joke long before he ever set foot on the bridge; prior to going to work on the span, he had served in the Navy as a submariner. Beamer spent five years as an electronics technician on the USS Kamehameha, a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine.

But unlike most past bridge bosses, Beamer is not a Duluth native. He grew up in Moose Lake, Minnesota, before joining the Navy. During shore duty in the Twin Cities Beamer met his future wife Cassi and they eventually settled in Duluth. Cassi saw the ad for operator’s job in the paper: its qualifications matched Beamer’s skills.

Beamer seems focused on the bridge’s safe operation, and that includes the safety not only of the operators and those traversing the bridge, but too often careless or reckless tourists. In 2006 he told the Duluth Budgeteer that outside of maintenance work an operator’s job isn’t too physically demanding, but the vigilance required can be draining. “Saturdays and Sundays in the middle of summer get stressful,” he said. “You don’t sit down. You are constantly standing there, watching traffic, watching boats, watching pedestrians, and keeping everybody safe.” He is most alarmed by parents who don’t recognize the danger of the lifting span. “You see people picking up their kid to hang on the bridge as it goes up,” he said. “And [they] don’t realize that it moves about a foot a second.” Despite several accidents over the years, including deaths in 1932 and 1982, “people attempting to hang on remains a daily occurrence in the summer months.… You have to be vigilant or people get hurt.”

Crossing the Canal by Zenith City Press contains a complete list of every operator who worked on the aerial bridge btween 1905 and 2005.

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