The Aerial Lift Bridge 1930–2005

Workers in 1955 positioning “special steel fabricated surfacing” on the bridge, replacing the original 1929 roadway, which still carried trolley tracks even though trolleys had not operated in Duluth since 1949. (Image: Ryan Beamer)

The 1950s: 46,736 Lifts

The Aerial Lift Bridge’s life in the 1950s started with a scare. Tragedy was narrowly avoided in December 1951, when sixteen year-old Minneapolis resident Beverly Brenner ignored warnings and stayed on the bridge’s sidewalk until after it began to raise. As the bridge moved upward, she panicked. Luckily the bridge was only eight feet above the pavement when she jumped. She suffered head injuries and an ambulance took her to St. Mary’s Hospital for tests. That incident aside, the bridge’s life in the 1950s was marked by maintenance. In 1951 its motors were provided with fresh batteries. The new 153-cell unit installed in April filled the bridge’s entire “basement” beneath the South Pier approach. The new battery was safer and consumed less electricity to charge. It was also stronger, easily providing the two hundred horsepower the engines needed to raise the lift span in normal conditions as well as the four hundred horsepower it sometimes required in high winds and icy conditions.

The winter of 1952 – 1953 witnessed major improvements. From mid December 1952 until the end of February the bridge did not raise as bridge boss Al Hass and his nine-man crew gave the bridge the “twice-over”—they never took chances on potential malfunctions. The bridge’s bearings were replaced, one of the gates got a new motor, and the bridge’s entire surface was repainted.

In an article about the maintenance, the Duluth News Tribune asked Hass what he thought of New York’s new lift bridge over the Harlem River, which could raise 110 feet in ninety seconds “as gently as eggs in a basket,” according to its boasting engineers. “Well,” Hass told reporters, “we don’t carry much in the way of eggs, but our bridge goes up 120 feet in fifty-five seconds, and smooth, too.”

Over the winter of 1953–1954, on the Lake Carrier Association’s recommendation, Duluth officials altered the method vessels used to signal the bridge to raise. Since 1930, incoming vessels signaled bridge operators with three long toots. While navigating in fog, ships traditionally gave three short blasts on the horn. But too often ship captains leaned on their horns too long in the fog, and often bridge operators thought they had been signaled and unnecessarily raised the bridge, wasting time and money and delaying traffic over the canal. And depending on the direction of the wind, signals from boats calling for the aerial bridge to raise often reached the harbor’s other mechanical bridges (the Arrowhead Bridge opened with two draw spans, and the Interstate Bridge was a pivoting swing bridge). So beginning in the 1954 shipping season, captains of incoming vessels had to learn to blow a new signal to request a bridge raising, one unique to Duluth’s aerial bridge: long, short, long, short.

The bridge underwent a major improvement in 1955, when workers replaced its worn road deck with “special steel fabricated surfacing.” The change was considered “an improvement badly needed” by county engineer George Deibler; the old deck still carried trolley tracks, even though Duluth’s street car system had shut down fifteen years earlier. Duluth and St. Louis County shared the $68,000 cost, and the work went relatively quickly, beginning in early February and completed on March 15. Later that summer a paint job started in 1952 was finally finished. After years of problems with the original contractor, bridge operator Hartley Ness, with the approval of the painter’s union, took on the task himself.

The aerial bridge lifted for a big saltie for the first time at 1:15 p.m. on May 4, 1959, as it got out of the way for the 475- foot, 10,000-ton freighter Ramon de Larrinaga out of Liverpool, England. A crowd of about 3,500 had shown up to witness the event on a blustery day marked by high waves crashing into the rocky shore and piers. Cars blew their horns and fire trucks sprayed a salute over the passing vessel, taking the place of fire tugs that usually herald a grand marine arrival (the canal was too narrow).

The de Larrinaga had actually made it to Duluth by 9 a.m. that morning, but Captain Joseph Meade held up entering the canal to wait for dignitaries to gather. He was eventually greeted by Mayor E. Clifford Mork, who presented him with a key to the city and an aerial photograph of the Duluth-Superior Harbor. It was a rather odd ceremony. Chief Good Sounding Sky, an Ojibwe from Sawyer, Wisconsin, stood by dressed in full ceremonial regalia; what his presence was meant to represent was never clear. Also on hand was Greysolon Sieur du Lhut XI, Duke of the Duluth Duchy, who presented Meade with a ducal degree, naming him “Ambassador Extraordinary [sic] of Duluth.” In real life, the duke was J. Palmer Harbison, district manager of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, his honorary title temporarily bestowed upon him by the civic organization Ambassadors of Duluth. Other dignitaries on hand included representatives of the company that owned the ship; Robert B. Morris, executive secretary of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce; and C. B. Green of Peavey, at whose elevator the ship would dock and take on 2,000 tons of oats before moving on to the Cargill elevator to load 4,545 tons of barley.

Duluth could now receive much larger ocean-going vessels, and just a few years later the additional international traffic had the bridge lifting in frequency not seen since World War II.

The 1960s: 52,471 Lifts

As the St. Lawrence Seaway opened a new age for the Duluth- Superior Harbor, the bridge took a big step forward as well. The so-called mechanical ear sound relay system that had helped bridge operators hear boat signals since 1932 was replaced with a very modern way of seeing through fog and other bad weather: radar. In April 1960 the City Council approved the purchase of a Raytheon Model 1500 Radar Radio Positioning Unit at the cost of $4,325. Installed in June, the bridge operators considered it a welcome addition. The radar unit had a range of thirty-two miles, but the bridge operators set it to sweep between a half mile and ten miles out. Now, instead of waiting to hear a horn blast or using binoculars to scan for arrivals, the bridge operators would be alerted to a ship’s approach by a blip on a screen, long before her skipper would even need to blow a signal.

Another change on the bridge in 1960 came from the common-sense mind of Bridge Supervisor Al Hass. Each of the bridge’s 153 batteries lasted about nine years. Hass replaced the tap water in each battery’s cell with distilled water, nearly tripling their lifespan.

In May 1964 the bridge got a new voice. The four trumpet-shaped brass horns that had greeted ships since 1930 had been “wired, soldered, bolted and patched so many times they were no longer repairable,” according to bridge supervisor Bob Brown. By 1960, the Duluth News Tribune estimated, the horns had sounded nearly 500,000 times. The new horns—two sets of them—were also used on diesel locomotives; one faced lakeward and the other toward the bay. Federal law required that they blow a tone loud enough to be heard for at least four miles, but Brown said he could hear them sixteen miles further explained that each horn was actually three horns tuned to separate frequencies “like a pipe organ” so that together they create vibrations that result in a much louder signal than if each sounded separately. “Musicians would call it a diminished fifth,” Brown explained.

Along with the horns came a set of synchronized lights that flashed in time with the horns. This provided another tool for the skipper of an incoming vessel: start a stopwatch when he first sees the light, stop it when he hears the horn, and then multiply the elapsed time by one thousand to get how many feet he was from the bridge. Along with radar and radio telephones, the bridge was getting safer all the time for both the ships that passed beneath it and those who used it to cross the canal.

The 1960s also saw an effort to make the bridge much more of a tourist attraction than it already was—and had been since 1905. Officials resurrected the idea that their predecessors had twice dismissed as unsafe: public rides on the bridge as it raised and lowered from June to Labor Day. In August 1965 Charles Cox and Dean Carlos of Higgins Industrial Supply Company installed chain-link fencing along the bridge’s lakeward sidewalk to create a safe enclosure for riders; the bridge operators called it the “Monkey Cage.” Later that month the bridge became a slow and careful carnival ride, and anyone over five years old could enjoy it for twenty-five cents.

“The bridge operators hated it,” current Lift Bridge Supervisor Ryan Beamer said in 2007. It made extra work for them, and also created safety concerns that had nothing to do with the bridge’s practical operation. Supervisor Don Bowen validated Beamer’s words back in 1967: “This passenger thing really has been nerve-wracking,” he told a local reporter. “Now, instead of stopping people, when the bells ring, it’s like a dinner bell. People just come running aboard.”

Those safety concerns became all too real the day one woman panicked. As the bridge began to rise, she opened the gate and ran toward the North Pier. Fortunately operator Richard Lyons was keeping an eye on his passengers and quickly shifted the bridge into reverse. But the bridge lost its race with the fleeing woman. When she reached the end of the bridge deck, it was still twenty feet in the air. She jumped and landed on the pier, but not without sustaining serious injuries. If Lyons had not stopped and reversed the bridge, she very well may have died. Despite the bridge operators’ dislike of the rides, they continued until 1973.

In 1966 the city’s Project Duluth Committee took steps to ensure that the bridge would be a night time attraction as well. They intended, chairman John Grinden explained, to illuminate the bridge after sundown with floodlights. “The Aerial Lift Bridge is the symbol of Duluth,” Grinden said, probably not the first and certainly not the last to make that observation. “We want to do everything possible to promote it to dramatize Duluth to tourists.” The committee hoped lighting the bridge would help make it as recognizable a symbol of Duluth as the Eiffel Tower was for Paris or St. Louis’s Gateway of the West Arch. The group also wanted to make the Canal Park district more attractive to visitors. Remember, at that time the only thing considered “Canal Park” was the Corps of Engineers Building, the landscaped area surrounding it, and the green space along the South Pier; the entire area south of Michigan Street to the canal was not exactly tourist friendly.

The original plan called for fourteen floodlights installed at either end of the bridge and directed so they would light up the bridge but not the road deck—keeping out of the eyes of motorists. Everyone seemed to love the idea. Soon it had the approval of the City, the Corps of Engineers, the Lake Carrier’s Association, and the Coast Guard. The architectural firm of Bean, Gilmore & Hill designed the lighting scheme using the same type of lighting that illuminated Egypt’s Sphinx and the Palace of Versailles in France, 1,000-watt mercury vapor lamps and luminaries, twelve of them mounted on eight poles. The architects estimated the cost at $21,000. A company named Infranor of North America won the contract.

The costs spurred the creation of another organization: the Aerial Bridge Club, chaired by Jack Arnold, public affairs director for WDSMTV, along with former University of Minnesota football great Billy Bye, Annabelle Gallagher, and Rena Pearson. Membership was obtained by donating one dollar or more to the lighting fund, and each member’s card entitled its holder to one free bridge ride. Northland Sign donated a thermometer-style sign that marked the fund drive’s progress and posted it at Lake Avenue and Superior Street.

By early September the group had collected $2,300, and nearly double that by the fifteenth of September. At that time Arnold and Bye suggested that names of each person who donated should go on a scroll to be encased in glass and permanently affixed to the bridge. That spurred a few more donations, and by early November the group had $14,000 in its coffers with donations still rolling in. On Friday, November 11, they had brought in all $21,000 from 10,000 donors.

A bigger ceremony surrounded the first lighting of the bridge than had greeted the Lift Bridge’s opening in 1930. On November 17 a crowd of thousands joined Bridge Club officials and city dignitaries to watch as state representative John A. Blatnik—who called the lights “a magnificent symbol of the rebirth of our area”—threw the switch to turn on the lights. They flickered for a moment, then flashed and grew stronger, bathing the bridge in what the newspaper called a “radiant, silver-blue light.” When the lights reached full power, the University of Minnesota Duluth marching band broke into “Hey, Look Me Over.” After that, the crowd joined the College of St. Scholastica’s choir in a rendition of “God Bless America.”

Few public efforts in Duluth go uncriticized, and so it was with the illumination; detractors said that while the new lighting did make the bridge visible at night, it did “little to make the span more attractive.” Perhaps Essex green was not as popular a color in the 1960s as it had been in 1930. The Project Duluth Committee had an idea: money brought in from bridge rides could not only pay for the new lights, it could cover the cost of a shiny new paint job. Committee chair John Grinden told newspapers he eventually wanted the bridge painted “aluminum” so that it would better reflect the light and therefore “stand out more,” becoming even more of a tourist draw.

With the bridge still unpainted as the 1960s closed, complaints of its condition got louder. A letter to the editor in the Duluth News Tribune on October 10, 1969, called the bridge’s condition “deplorable” and the bridge itself an “eyesore.” Paint was peeling and rust was clearly visible. The writer wanted to know why the money coming in from bridge rides wasn’t used to maintain the bridge. His concern would be addressed the next year.

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