Early Canal Bridge Ideas

Alfred Pancoast Boller’s 1890 plans for a bridge over the Duluth Ship Canal. (Image: Zenith City Press)

With the growing grain and lumber industries keeping its harbor busy with activity and commerce, the Village of Duluth prospered throughout the 1880s. As the harbor became further developed with grain elevators and lumber and flour mills, dredging further improved the canal and bay. By then, two beacon lights and fog a signal had been added to the canal.

The outer harbor had changed as well. The Citizen’s Dock, abandoned in 1880, was “destroyed” in 1886 (as with the dike, remnants of it must have remained for some time, as it is included in both the 1888 Sanborn Insurance Maps and the 1902 Frank’s Atlas). That same year fire consumed elevators A and Q. The breakwater that had served the elevator, neglected since Cooke’s failure, had all but disintegrated. No matter: with the canal, the inner harbor had rendered the outer infrastructure unnecessary. 1886 also saw the creation of the Duluth District Corps of Engineers, a federal body that would, from that point on, be in charge of the ship canal.

As the Village of Duluth prospered and its population grew, it continued to pay off the debt of the defunct City of Duluth; by 1887 it had cleared the books, and the state legislature sanctioned its incorporation: Duluth—from the canal north up the hillside along Lake Avenue west to roughly Seventh Avenue West—was once again a city. Nearby townsites, eager to reap the same benefits Duluth would as a city, folded themselves into Duluth’s ranks, stretching the new City of Duluth’s borders from Twenty-sixth Avenue East to Thirtieth Avenue West. But the portion of the original city of Duluth located below the ship canal—which seceded from Duluth in 1881 to become the Village of Park Point—refused to join the new city.

The problem, as it had always been, was the bridge over the canal; or rather, the lack thereof. Without a permanent solution for crossing the canal, Park Point would remain an independent village. Duluth’s city fathers had long envisioned the bay side of Minnesota Point lined with slips, but it could hardly create that infrastructure on land it didn’t own. So Duluth promised Park Point a bridge. Historian Walter Van Brunt suggests Duluth’s approach wore down the Pointers rather than wooed them with genuine offers: “Finally, being promised a bridge, rather informally and not truly officially perhaps, [the residents of Park Point] surrendered.” In 1890 Park Point technically became one with the City of Duluth, but the canal kept the community separate.

Boller Bridge Design

In 1890 Park Point still did not have its bridge, but it wasn’t as if the city hadn’t been hard at work on the problem. At the behest of the Common Council (Duluth operated under an aldermanic government until 1912, when it switched to a commissioner driven city council system; the city switched to its present mayor/city council form of government in 1956), the Duluth Board of Public Works had hired Alfred Pancoast Boller, a nationally recognized consulting engineer, to produce the first plan to span the canal with a professionally designed bridge. One of Boller’s biggest challenges would be satisfying federal engineers: as the canal and the land adjacent to it was owned and operated by the federal government, no bridge could be built without the federal government’s approval. That acceptance—which proved difficult to gain—as well as the costs of various proposed designs, would delay the reality of a bridge for another fifteen years.

For his 1890 proposal, Boller designed a 475-foot swing bridge mounted on a massive masonry pier rising out of the canal tight against the canal’s south pier; nearly half the bridge would actually hang over Minnesota Point when in use. To allow ship traffic to pass, the bridge would pivot on a great turntable at its center—using fifty-eight twenty-inch steel balls as bearings—so that when it was moved to allow a ship to pass, the entire bridge would rest along the south pier wall. The bridge would take fifteen seconds to unlock and another ninety seconds to swing out of the way or back into place. Boller’s report took great pains to show that his bridge would not infringe in the slightest on the passage needed for shipping, allowing 200 feet for navigation. He also designed the bridge’s deck to carry both railroad and horse and wagon traffic and included sidewalks for pedestrians.

Despite the careful consideration to keep the canal wide open for ship traffic, nothing ever became of Boller’s plan. The town simply didn’t have the money. Then, as today, the City of Duluth was all too well acquainted with the difficulty of balancing tax revenue against outlay for the public good. Boller’s  bottom line was $112,000 for substructure and masonry, $114,000 for the superstructure, and $150,000 for construction of the roadway approaches to the bridge. Miscellaneous and contingent costs brought the bill to just shy of $400,000—over $8.5 million in today’s dollars—a figure that the city fathers could not seriously contemplate at the time. Cost aside, city leaders dropped Boller’s idea due to “difficulties and opposition encountered.” Local business owners and captains of industry—including Captain Alexander McDougall, whose whaleboat freighters were revolutionizing Great Lakes shipping—opposed any sort of mechanical bridge: there was too much potential for such a structure to fail and block the canal, preventing ships from accessing Duluth’s harbor.

Sooy Smith Tunnel

In an attempt to avoid the potential problems a bridge might create, Duluth turned its attention to a new idea: a tunnel. The city hired Chicago consulting engineer William Sooy Smith to come up with a plan, which he delivered on January 27, 1891.

The Sooy Smith tunnel would take St. Croix Avenue, which ran along the eastern shore of Minnesota Point, underground and below the canal, emerging south of the waterway. (St. Croix Avenue was later renamed First Avenue East and is known today as Canal Park Drive.) Sooy Smith actually drew up two plans: one with three separate tunnels (one each for pedestrian, train, and wagon traffic) and another with four tunnels (the additional passage was also to be used for trains). Towers on either side of the canal would take pedestrians down a stairway to the walkway.

Sooy Smith argued that most of the work could be done in the open air while the canal remained in operation. Then, during the winter when the canal was free of all shipping traffic, engineers would sink great caissons holding coffer dams that contained lengths of tunnel; once engineers put the tunnel sections in place, the dams would be removed. And once the tunnel was operational, shipping traffic would never have to be inconvenienced in the slightest for people and goods to cross the canal. The residents of Minnesota Point would never again require the use of a ferry or risk their lives on a dangerous temporary bridge.

But again finances doomed the project: estimates ran as high as $1.4 million, over $30 million in today’s dollars. The city, which had already expressed reluctance over spending $400,000 for a bridge, was certainly not going to approve a $1.4 million tunnel plan. Nearly two years after promising Park Pointers a bridge, Duluth didn’t even have a viable plan.

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Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.