Early Canal Bridge Ideas

Entries to Duluth’s 1891 contest for a bridge over the Duluth Ship Canal. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Canal Bridge Contest

So the city held a contest. In October 1891 Duluth’s Board of Public Works asked the Common Council for the authority to advertise a competition for plans and specifications of a means to cross the canal. The designs had to carry passage for rail, wagons, and pedestrians (the first automobile wouldn’t arrive in Duluth until 1900) and work in a way that did not impede canal traffic. The best plan would receive a $1,000 prize. At the end of December the competition was announced in Engineering News. Twenty engineers from across the country heard the call and submitted designs.

Two plans called for a swing arm similar to Boller’s earlier design. Several, including a submission by tunnel designer Sooy Smith, were for sliding bridges in which either one entire expanse or two smaller expanses (one on either side of the canal) would slide back along rails to clear the shipping lane. Two designs involved cantilevering the bridge so it could be tipped up and out of the way

The Milwaukee firm of Arentz & Sangdahl took home the cash for their bi-level, single sliding draw bridge design. The bridge’s railway floor would hang above the roadway for wagon and foot traffic; to make way for a passing ship it would slide straight back 316 feet from the canal along rails. A 116 horsepower electric engine would move the bridge with steel ropes. The engineers estimated its cost at $236,000.

But despite winning the contest, Arentz & Sangdahl’s design was passed over for a cheaper bridge that would “take care of the business for several years, or until such a time as the city felt it was able to tunnel the canal.” The city chose instead a very interesting plan by John Alexander Low Waddell: an aerial bridge whose roadway span could be lifted to allow shipping traffic full use of the canal. The board called the plan “the best adapted to the locality and the most suitable and economic structure as regards both construction and operation.”

Armed with Waddell’s plans, a committee consisting of harbor master J. W. Miller, S. A. Thompson from the Chamber of Commerce, and Henry Truelsen, president of Duluth’s Board of Public Works, traveled to Washington to show the plans to S. B. Elkins, the Secretary of War, under whose jurisdiction the canal operated. But as the group completed its presentation, they were informed that a protest had been filed against the construction of any bridge over the canal. A group consisting of the Lake Carrier’s Association, the Cleveland Vessel Owner’s Association, and others had filed the complaint. Among them was Duluth’s Alexander McDougall, a founding member of the Lake Carrier’s Association. The groups argued that access to Minnesota Point would have no effect on the local economy: only two hundred people called the land spit home, and its land was not needed for dock space. Further, one of Lake Superior’s fierce storms would certainly wash out the bridge. If a bridge were rendered inoperable during a storm, ships would not be able to gain safety by passing through the canal to the inner harbor. They offered three alternatives: continue the ferry service, build a tunnel, or connect Minnesota Point to Rice’s Point using a trestle bridge with a center draw.

The War Department formed a board of engineers to hear the complaint in Detroit in March of 1892. Duluth’s representatives, including Miller, Thompson, and Truelsen along with city attorney S. L. Smith and Alderman Charles Long, laid out their argument. One of the points they made was that Duluth intended to make the bay side of Minnesota Point a contributing portion of the port. Multiple slips jutting into the bay from the Point could result in “twenty-two miles of dock frontage” and consolidate shipping; without a bridge, railroads could not reach those docks, and Duluth would be denied further economic development. They argued that the bridge would serve the estimated 10,000 people who would one day populate the Point. They denied the bridge would obstruct navigation and refuted other claims made by McDougall and his confederates.

But Duluth had to wait until April for the board’s response, which was far from what they had hoped. The board praised Waddell’s design, yet stated clearly it preferred the idea of a swing bridge such as Boller’s idea. And while it sympathized with the people of Duluth over access to the Point, the board decided to base its opinion on “the best interests of all concerned.” The board also declared it did not wish to “establish a dangerous precedent” by allowing a bridge to be built over the canal because it is the very point where a mariner “passes the perils of the seas into the shelter of the harbor” and that “such a point cannot be too free from obstruction, or the possibility of it.” It opposed “the construction of any bridge over the canal at Duluth.” Waddell’s lift bridge was out—of the Duluth picture, at least. In 1895 the plans would be used to build the Halsted Street Bridge in Chicago, and Waddell would become famous for his design.

Duluth was back to one alternative: a tunnel. A very expensive tunnel. The Duluth Board of Public  Works’ 1892 report on the matter expresses the town’s frustration, concluding with the statement, “The day when we will have access to Minnesota Point is probably a long way off.” And if the city felt it had been defeated, consider the disappointment Park Point’s residents faced: they were still cut off, and the government had cancelled all hope of a bridge in the reasonable future.

The city made one last-ditch effort to connect Park Point to the mainland. They ran another contest, this time for a tunnel design, hoping the government would not object to an idea that eliminated a bridge. C. C. Conkling took home the $1,000 prize, but his tunnel never took another step forward. The Board of Public Works report for 1893 mentioned that “legal complications” had arisen and guessed that the issues would likely be carried to District and Supreme Courts before any work could even be considered. Nothing ever became of Conkling’s plans, but it wouldn’t be the last time Duluth entertained the idea of a tunnel.

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