Building Duluth’s Aerial Transfer Bridge

Construction of the Aerial Transfer Bridge underway during the winter of 1904–1905. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

1905: A New Era Begins

In the early days of 1905, the bridge was progressing nicely. The towers and false supports were in place, and the truss was beginning to take shape, with metal work reaching from both towers toward the center. McGilvray brought up a matter previously overlooked: small stations to keep passengers warm and dry while waiting their turn to cross. Railroad engineer James H. Marcy wrote McGilvray offering to build the structures at his own cost if he were given the land and a license to operate a “cigar, stationery, and confectionary store” in each of the buildings for five years; after that, the city could extend the license or purchase the buildings from Marcy and lease the buildings to another party.

For these small structures, McGilvray turned to prominent Duluth architects German & Lignell. Major Charles L. Potter of the Corps of Engineers, Gaillard’s replacement, approved the plans, which called for concrete block structures capped with ornamental red roofs estimated to cost $1,450 each.

By February the bridge was near completion, and later that month McGilvray invited two hundred people to witness the ferry car’s first crossing. He included local dignitaries to take the ferry’s first ride: Mayor Cullum; Common Council President Roland D. Haven; aldermen Thomas F. Trevillion, Benjamin K. Walker, and Lucien A. Barnes; A. B. Wolvin; Judge W. A. Cant; J. P. Johnson; Colonel Hubert Evra; attorney Frank Crassweller; W. A. Culkin; Chief of Police Chauncy H. Troyer; police captain Frederick E. Resche; Cameron Hewitt; D. G. Cash; C. C. Cokefair; J. B. Darling; C. A. Coleman; J. L. Owens; former City Engineer Patton; City Attorney Bert Fesler; County Surveyor W. H. Wadsworth; Chief Engineer Herman L. Dresser and William Hoyt of the DM&N; John H. Dwight and W. S. Bishop of the First National Bank; Clyde Iron Works manager C. A. Lester; and members of McGilvray’s staff, including Axel Wilson, E. R. Coe, Charles Drew, and J. Neff.

Representatives of MSS also got on board for the first crossing, including treasurer J. K. Lowry, foreman D. M. Carr, and electrical engineer Charles Adrian, as well as the structural steel workers, the men who actually built the bridge: F. Schmidtz, E. Foucoult, B. Keenan, H. Larson, J. Schrod, E. Knight, and Gus Rakowsky.

At 4:30 in the afternoon of February 23, 1905, these men entered the car at the south tower and prepared to cross. The bridge was not yet fully complete—some of the false wooden work still stood against the south tower where it had once been needed to support the bridge before the main truss was complete. The newspaper fancied that the ferry car would “glide gracefully out over the canal and the hopes which the residents of Park Point have held for years will be realized.”

To ensure safety, men were posted at the top of the bridge so they could identify any problems with the trucks in time to warn of an impending accident. McGilvray himself controlled the car, which began rolling without so much as a hiccup. One of the workmen posted atop the bridge decided to have a little fun with the crowd, striking at the false staging work with a wooden plank and shouting for Adrian to shut off the power. Afraid that “heavy objects were about to crash to the deck,” many of those invited on board sought protection under the car’s awnings. After a good laugh—and reassurance from Lowry that a joke had been played, nothing more—the ferry car moved ahead. Riders felt “only a slight vibration” while the car moved northward. As it reached the north end of the canal with “a gentle motion, an almost imperceptible contact against the air cushion in the approach, it stopped and locked automatically.” The entire trip lasted one minute and fifteen seconds, but it had been over fifteen years in the making. The ferry car then returned to the other side without any passengers disembarking to complete their trip across the canal.

There were no women aboard the first trip—a sign of the times. It wasn’t until March 5 that the ferry car first transferred a woman across the canal. Mrs. Emil Borth of 1624 East Seventh Street, who had carefully watched the bridge’s construction, became determined to be the first person across. So she approached workers and asked for a ride, and they obliged her, telling the newspaper that, “she was alone in the car and thoroughly enjoyed the little thrill of being part of so tremendous and important an enterprise.” The paper went on to claim that, since the ferry’s inaugural run didn’t actually deliver anyone across the canal, Mrs. Borth was not just the first woman to cross the canal in the ferry car, but technically the first person period to cross via the aerial bridge. The story did not mention that bridge workers already used it regularly and an operator was on board during all crossings.

Encouraged by the test, the Duluth News-Tribune estimated the city would take control of the bridge by March 20, when work on the ferry car was scheduled to be complete. That proved  a little too hopeful, as five days after the test MSS wrote to McGilvray requesting an extension: weather had created extremely dangerous conditions, causing unforeseen delays. MSS needed until April 1 before opening the bridge to public use and, consequently, until at least May 1 before Duluth could receive the bridge. McGilvray passed the request on to the Common Council, which extended the deadline to May 1.

On March 4 the last of the wooden false work on the south tower came down: outside of “a number of small jobs, which are unimportant, but which require time for their completion,” the bridge was ready. Those tasks included painting the structure: two coats of olive green they had hoped to have on in time to honor St. Patrick’s Day (alas, work was delayed until March 20). Workers painted the lower chord first because the upper chord could be painted once the bridge was in operation.

The ferry car also required many finishing touches, but these would not stand in the way of the bridge’s opening “on or before All Fool’s Day,” as the paper reported, adding that those who would summer on Park Point that year would not need the ferry to move their belongings over the canal. As a final safety measure, MSS decided to see if the bridge could carry the load C. A. P. Turner had specified. On Friday, March 24, after several test runs with just people aboard, workmen loaded the ferry car with sixty-five tons of steel rails, reels of phone wire, cable, a steam boiler, and heavy timber, “greater than any load that the bridge is likely to be called on to carry, at least until street cars are taken across.” Even under all that weight, the bridge operated smoothly. MSS prepared to open the bridge to the public the following Monday.

Read more of this story: 1 2