Aerial Transfer Bridge (1905-1929)

Hugh McKenzie snapped this image of a biplane flying under the aerial bridge, most likely piloted by Wilbur Larrabee in 1918. Larrabee was the second pilot to have flown beneath the bridge’s top span. (Image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection)

The Transfer Bridge in Mid Life

By 1910 the ferry made seventy-five round trips a day during operating hours, and the time between trips no longer allowed on-the-fly maintenance. Starting that year, overhauls were made annually and lasted ten days.

Except for the time when his colleague William Patton filled the role from 1900–1904, Thomas McGilvray had served as Duluth’s City Engineer since 1897. But at the end of 1912, he stepped away from public office. He may have been uncomfortable with a big change to Duluth’s government: the shift from an alderman-based Common Council to a commissioner-based City Council. Commissioners represented the city departments: Finance, Public Works, Public Safety, Public Utilities; the mayor acted as the Public Affairs Commissioner. (The city switched to its present Mayor/City Council form of government in 1956.) Perhaps McGilvray didn’t like the idea of answering to an elected public works commissioner. At his retirement reception McGilvray’s fellow city engineers presented him with a Masonic emblem, and the paper reported McGilvray delivered a “neat speech.” In 1913 he rejoined Patton at his Duluth Engineering Company, where he would work until 1917 before going into private practice. McGilvray unsuccessfully ran for County Surveyor in 1918. His loss may have been due to a little bad press a few months before the election. In May, he and two companions were charged for drunkenness and disorderly conduct, and the Temperance movement was in full swing; Prohibition would go into effect the next year. The newspaper account of his arrest did not elaborate on the events surrounding it.

An incident in 1913 displayed just how disruptive a bridge closing could be—especially an unexpected one. At about 1 p.m. on September 4, as the ferry car approached the north pier with a load of passengers—no teams or automobiles were aboard—a frayed cable snapped, and the car ground to a halt. The car had not reached the end of its journey, so passengers had to descend by ladder. Captain E. D. Peck of the Corps of Engineers immediately provided the use of a government launch to ferry passengers until the city could secure the services of a steam launch.

The Plowboy eventually took over the job, but its cargo was limited to people. Dozens of wagons, teams, and autos were stranded on Minnesota Point until workers could complete repairs, which took two weeks as the city decided it might as well put the bridge through its annual maintenance at the same time.

Another great storm stopped bridge operation on April 28, 1914. Incoming boats were forced to turn back and ride out the storm on the open lake—the waters were too rough to navigate the canal. The newspaper reported that hundreds of people armed with “cameras and Kodaks” headed to the canal to watch and take photos of the storm, but most were forced to seek shelter in the Corps of Engineers’ building and the moored aerial bridge ferry car. Twenty-five Park Point residents spent the night in the ferry car; others were forced to find rooms in hotels.

At least one man didn’t think conditions on the canal posed that great a danger. Twenty-four-year old laborer Sivo “Stans” Sanden, a resident of the Torvilla Hotel a few blocks north of the canal, bet a companion one dollar that he could walk the North Pier from end to end. Setting out from beneath the aerial bridge, Sanden darted from one light post to the next, hiding behind the posts as the waves crested and running to the next before another breached the canal. About halfway through his adventure, bridge operators saw Sanden hesitate long enough to throw off his timing. When the next wave hit, it swept him over the pier and into the canal’s roiling waters. He may have hit his head along the way: witnesses said he made no attempt to swim to safety. Police and members of the life-saving station arrived quickly, having been notified by bridge operators using the ferry car’s telephone. None of the would-be rescuers could locate his body.

By the summer of 1917 city officials were once again wondering how long the bridge could keep up with demand. Mayor C. R. Magney and Finance Commissioner Phillip G. Phillips of the City Council reminded citizens that the bridge’s estimated life was twenty years, and that it would reach that mark in just six years. They dismissed the idea of replacing the bridge with a larger structure of the same kind; a recent carnival on Minnesota Point forced the bridge to transport thirty-two thousand spectators, which it did with some difficulty, proving that a ferry bridge could never handle the expected traffic in the years ahead. Only a tunnel would both handle the estimated traffic needs and be allowed by the Corps of Engineers, which controlled the canal, and a tunnel would take about the same amount of time to build. Despite the clamor Phillips and Magney created, the tunnel idea died.

The next year marked the first tragedy to occur on the bridge, 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. It took a firefighter and two bridge operators quite some time to free White from the bridgeworks and lower him down by ropes, and he died just minutes after reaching the hospital.

While maintaining the bridge had proved deadly to White, not a single accident involving the ferry bridge resulted in the death of a passenger. In her book, This is Duluth, Dora May McDonald noted only two accidents, both involving the approaches to the ferry car. In one, a driver of a team carrying beer drove his horses right off the approach and into the canal; a 1956 article in the Duluth News-Tribune claimed it had been a laundry team, not a brewery team, and added that the horses drowned (if it was indeed a brewery team, it likely belonged to Van Blatz Brewery of Milwaukee, which operated a distribution warehouse on Park Point). In the other incident, DM&N Chief Engineer H. L. Dresser drove his car off the approach. McDonald reported that James Ten Eyck, the Duluth Boat Club’s legendary rowing coach, happened to be waiting for the ferry when the accident occurred; he removed his pants and dove into the canal, bringing Dresser to safety. Still another tale combines these two accounts into one event, with Dresser’s car forcing the team overboard before following in his car. None of these accounts included a date, however, and searches in newspaper archives for contemporary accounts have turned up nothing.

Another unverified tale turns potential tragedy into humor. The story goes that a young betrothed couple began arguing as they crossed the canal in the ferry car. The disagreement caused the woman great anxiety. Distraught, when she descended the ferry car she immediately ran to the edge of the pier and, in a dramatic effort to end her own life, threw herself into the canal. Her rash act was supposedly foiled by her enormous hoop skirt: when she landed in the canal, instead of sinking to the bottom, she popped up and bobbed like a buoy until rescuers arrived and plucked her to safety.

Not every event surrounding the bridge involved maintenance or potential tragedy. On March 18, 1918, pilot Wilber Larrabee became the first person to pilot an airplane beneath the aerial bridge (others would follow). Larrabee, of Minneapolis, was in town to perform a “revue” of acrobat flying, with the dive beneath the bridge his headline maneuver. Unfortunately, a follow-up article on Larrabee did not provide any details of the stunt and only reported that it had been accomplished.

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