Aerial Transfer Bridge (1905-1929)

Duluth’s Aerial Transfer Bridge photographed on its first day of operation in 1905. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

1920s: The Beginning of the End

Throughout its life span, the Duluth Aerial Transfer Bridge never had an accident with a vessel navigating the canal—not that there hadn’t been many close calls. Operators liked to say that sometimes the car came so close to a vessel, there would certainly have been a collision “if the boat had been covered with one more coat of paint.” Hyperbole aside, the closest recorded call came November 8, 1921, when the outbound steamer Joshua Rhodes came within fifteen feet of the car. With about fifty passengers aboard—plus a full load of cars, trucks, and coal wagons—trouble with the trucks stopped the ferry car about two-fifths of its way south across the canal as the Rhodes approached. Its operators leaped into action: one rang the emergency signal on the bell—five loud clangs, the Duluth Evening Herald reported—while another climbed atop the ferry car and waved his arms, trying to get the Rhodes’ captain’s attention. A nearby tug blew its whistle and waited nearby in case it was needed to help push the Rhodes away from the ferry car. Luckily, officers on the Rhodes were paying attention and were able to steer the ore boat just in time to allow it to pass safely.

A winter storm in February 1922 illustrates just how important the bridge was to Park Point’s residents. A blizzard had buried the city, turning it into “a labyrinth of tunnels and narrow snow-banked lanes,” according to the Duluth News Tribune. The Point had been hit hard, with snowbanks as high as trolley cars. To make matters worse, a cable had snapped on the aerial bridge, cutting Park Point off completely. The town’s fire chief, John Randall, worried that a fire on the Point would quickly become a tragedy. “I don’t know what we can do for Park Point,” he told the newspaper. “Unless a snow-shoe volunteer fire-fighting, snow-bucket brigade is organized, people must be extra careful to avoid any possible fires.” Bridge boss Leonard Green explained that the gale had fouled one of the cables, which became caught up in the bridge’s hangers. The problem would take only eight hours to fix, but no work could be done until the weather abated. When the weather cleared and the bridge was repaired, one of its first duties was to transport a National Guard tank to Park Point to help clear snow.

Snowstorms weren’t the only problem facing Park Pointers. With more and more people using the ferry bridge, especially in summer, they were often delayed to and from work. To alleviate the problem, in June 1922 Mayor Samuel Frisby Snively and Public Works Commissioner James A. “Bert” Ferrell introduced an ordinance to the City Council granting bridge privileges to Park Point residents: they would have precedence over other passengers queuing up for a ride “every other time it crosses from the north to the south side of the ship canal between 5:30 and 7 p.m., from June 1 until Oct. 1.” The measure passed, but not without some effort by Washburn, Bailey & Mitchell, the law firm hired to represent Park Point residents.

After the measure had been introduced, City Attorney J. B. Richards gave his opinion: the ordinance violates the state constitution and discriminates against those Duluthians who did not live on Park Point. A. M. C. Washburn, on behalf of Park Point, argued the ordinance was both valid and justified in the entire city’s interest both from a “traffic view and from the viewpoint of public health, safety, and morals.” He added that the measure would stand up to any legal argument against it and if an arrangement with the Duluth Boat Club could be worked out, there should be no problem whatsoever.

But after both attorneys gave their opinions, the Council did not move to take any action, which infuriated Washburn. “Does the mere filing of the city attorney’s opinion automatically dispose of the ordinance?” he objected. “If it does, this council certainly is unique as a legislative body. It strikes me as a cheap way of getting out of learning the constitutionality of such a measure.”

Two commissioners took exception to Washburn’s remarks. Finance Commissioner Leonidas Merritt said that while he sympathized with Park Pointers, he told them he would vote for the ordinance only if the city attorney approved of it—he would not expose the city to endless lawsuits. Public Utilities Commissioner Phillips, under whose jurisdiction the bridge operated, was incensed. “Don’t make any more trouble for me,” he told Snively and Ferrell. “I think that you who are so anxious for this ordinance ought to take over the care of the bridge, I am not going to vote for any kind of ordinance that is going to exclude any taxpayer from the use of the bridge.”

Washburn wasn’t done. He reminded the council that the city attorney’s ruling was “not infallible” and that “Mr. Richards…was for their guidance, not their master.” The ordinance passed, with Merritt and Phillips casting the only “nay” votes.

The next year saw the passing of one of the engineers who helped create the bridge. William Patton, who stood in for McGilvray during Mayor T. W. Hugo’s 1900–1904 administration, died on November 30 at age sixty-three. Besides being instrumental in the aerial bridge’s construction and the president of the Duluth Engineering Company, Patton had been a very active Mason. He was one of four charter members of the King Solomon Temple of England—the other three were former presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and General Thomas J. Shryock, a lumberman and one-time treasurer of Maryland. Patton was a past master of Duluth’s Palestine Lodge No. 79 and in 1910 the grand master of the Minnesota Grand Lodge. At his death, he was considered “one of the leading Masons in the world.”

The bridge Patton helped build was also nearing the end of its life. Even with privileges in place for Park Point residents, the bridge simply could not keep up with the needs of the city—on either side of the canal. In 1901, when the transfer bridge idea was still an idea, just shy of 53,000 people lived in town and only one of them, B. E. Baker, owned an automobile (a single cylinder Oldsmobile runabout, although J. R. Zweifel also claimed his Locomobile steamer got there first). In 1925, the population was closing in on 100,000 and 17,340 automobiles and 2,600 trucks drove Duluth’s streets. The bridge had in part created the growth that was rendering it obsolete: with a convenient mode of conveyance across the canal, Park Point and the entire southern portion of Minnesota Point had opened to more full-time residents and businesses, and it continued its role as “Duluth’s Playground.” With more and more of the people living, working, and playing on the Point—and getting to and from the isthmus on automobiles—soon there wouldn’t be enough hours in the day for the bridge to move everyone who needed to use it.

And as it neared the end of its estimated life, city officials began to join Park Pointers in expressing their concern. In May 1925 Public Utilities Commissioner Phillips asked the City Council to take the responsibility of maintaining the bridge out of his hands. The meeting was not focused on the bridge, but on parks improvements, something very dear to Mayor S. F. Snively, who donated his own time and money to build Seven Bridges Road and complete Skyline Parkway. Phillips objected to Snively’s idea that gravel used to help build a link between the Fond du Lac Road and Jay Cooke State Park be paid for with bond money. “I don’t like that,” Phillips told the Mayor. “What are we going to do in the future when we are faced with real bond issues, if we load ourselves down with bonds now?”

Snively replied, “Always afraid of the future….”

“I have a right to be,” Phillips retorted. “What are we going to do in the future when the aerial bridge is declared unsafe? What will you do, if you are mayor a few years from now, and I ask you and the rest of the council to take responsibility for the bridge?”

No one replied. When asked by a reporter if the bridge was in any immediate danger, he simply replied that, “It is over twenty years old and can’t be expected to last forever,” before explaining that the future he was concerned with included an expense of $4,000,000 to replace the bridge with a tunnel. Not everything about the bridge’s final years involved lawyers and City Council decisions. In July 1926 J. C. Craig sought to thrill Duluthians by diving from atop the bridge, 186 feet into the canal below. Craig’s jump, sanctioned by Mayor Snively and other city officials, was intended to break the record of 133 feet set by Steve Brodie when he launched himself off the Brooklyn Bridge. Craig considered Brodie a “piker,” a derogatory term in vogue at the time meaning cheapskate or a person who does things in a small way. The thirty-three-year-old Craig fancied himself no piker; indeed, the paper reported he’d been “making eyes at death so long he has earned the nickname of ‘Daredevil.’” Craig announced he would not only leap from the top of the bridge, but also blindfold himself and walk across the beam backward and forward until he was ready to jump.

Craig did beat Brodie’s record, but not by as much as he’d hoped. High winds made it impossible for him to reach the very top of the bridge, and he had to jump from a beam on the lower edge of the span, reducing the jump to 140 feet. But as promised he put on the blindfold, walked forward and backward, hung from his toes, and basically “frolicked about” as the newspaper reported. After his successful jump, he ended up chilled to the bone (he called the canal’s waters “the coldest current in the world”) and battered—but his body was not as bruised as his ego. Despite drawing a crowd of about ten thousand onlookers, passing the hat brought him only $65.

While the Aerial Transfer Bridge was largely known for the traffic jams it caused during its final few years, it also continued to serve Duluth as a tourist attraction and provided many memories. One man even claims to have been born on the bridge’s ferry car. In 2005 Richard Sundberg told a local reporter that his parents, Albert and Rose, were caught in a stalled ferry car during the stormy night of September 6, 1927, while rushing to the hospital from their home on Park Point. Sundberg couldn’t wait to get to the other side and came into the world “right there on the bucket of the bridge.” But the newspapers failed to report any such birth on the bridge at the time, and some lifelong Park Pointers—those with “sand in their blood”—also have no recollection of the event. Maggie McGillis, born on the Point in 1922, said she heard no such tale growing up, but knew Sundberg to be “always kind of a smarty. He may have made this up.”

Another likely apocryphal tale is of a woman who was not born on the bridge, but conceived there. Her parents named her “Aerial,” the tale goes. Of course, there is no record of such an event ever taking place on the bridge. When you consider that the ferry took about a minute to cross and was usually quite crowded and always had an operator on board, her parents would have pulled off a remarkable feat (although her father may not have wished to brag too loudly). Despite its role as Duluth’s icon, the aerial bridge was fast becoming—like daredevil Craig—nothing more than a novelty. Operating beyond its projected lifespan, the bridge was serving more as a tourist attraction than a practical way of crossing the canal. The next few years would see a movement toward the building of a replacement bridge, but just as building the first aerial bridge was fraught with obstacles, it would be a bumpy ride before anyone crossed the canal on a new bridge.

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