The Aerial Lift Bridge 1930–2005

(From left) Bridge painters James Russel, Ralph Ruiz, and Thomas Sherman ham it up atop the aerial lift bridge in a photo probably taken by John Parent, the fourth member of their crew. (Image: Ryan Beamer)

The 1970s: 63,395 Lifts

In 1970 the city got serious about painting the bridge. After a false start—the city had grossly underestimated costs—the job was divided into three phases, as Duluth only had enough money for the first phase, surface preparation and spot painting. The other phases, an intermediate coat and a final coat, would have to be spread over a number of years. The job was eventually finished in 1975, and the once-green bridge became silvery aluminum. Painting the bridge was part of a program that included upgrading the batteries and installing a new emergency engine to replace the back-up gasoline engines. Bridge Supervisor Bob Brown, who had replaced Al Hass in 1968, explained that the batteries had worn down prematurely due to overuse of the bridge by pleasure craft.

Brown reported that in July 1970, 1,588 vessels passed under the bridge. “Of that number,” Brown said, “552 passages were for the excursion boats Flame and Flamingo, which constituted 35 percent of all traffic. Sailboats and other small craft made up another 404 passages or 25 percent of the lifts. The only reason the batteries had lasted as long as they had was because of Al Hass switching to distilled water ten years earlier. On top of the additional boat traffic, the bridge experienced increased automobile traffic, with 119,000 vehicles crossing the bridge that June alone.

Besides the new batteries and back-up engine, canal traffic had to be limited to extend the bridge’s life, Brown argued. One possible solution would be to limit lifts by establishing “bridge hours”—a limit on the hours the bridge would raise for anything but “essential marine traffic.” The Coast Guard agreed with him. It sent a notice to mariners that the Guard “will support owners of drawbridges who refuse to open their bridges for vessels capable of sailing beneath the structure.” The same would apply to the lift bridge. Boat owners were encouraged to take down antennas, fishing rigs, false smoke stacks, or anything else that could be easily removed to lower a craft’s height to clear the road span’s bottom. Not only were the pleasure boats wearing out the bridge and causing unnecessary delays, they were delaying larger vessels that needed the canal.

Two years later the problem remained. The Park Point Community Club took up the cause, telling the newspaper that the bridge was being “abused.” Residents were sick of unnecessarily being “bridged,” a popular Duluth term for being stuck in traffic waiting for the bridge to raise and lower. Many Park Pointers were still thrilled by the sight of a thousand-foot ore boat passing under the bridge, but few cared much for other craft. They had long ago learned to ride out the wait by keeping a book in the car to read, and Park Pointers always have an excuse if late: “I got bridged” is enough for any other Duluthian to understand the delay.

By 1972, Brown’s argument hadn’t changed much. In 1971 the bridge lifted 5,873 times, 1,700 for the Flame and Flamingo—both of which, according to Brown, sported “needlessly long radio antennas and false smokestacks.” At an estimated cost to the city of $23 per lift, those two vessels alone placed a burden of $39,000 on Duluth taxpayers. Despite the hullabaloo, officials never put “bridge hours” into place. Not that the perception of excursion boats making the bridge raise unnecessarily ever changed. Tom Mackay, longtime Park Point resident and captain of the Vista Fleet, told reporters in 2005 that “People have cussed at me from their cars. I’ve had people threaten to fire a shot across my bow the next time I cause a delay.”

(The Park Point Community Club made another effort to establish “bridge hours” in the mid-1990s. With the Coast Guard’s consent, the bridge raised and lowered just once every half hour. But after a year the Coast Guard considered the experiment a failure, and the bridge returned to lifting on an as needed basis.)

In 1973 the bridge received its highest honor, a spot in the National Register of Historic Places, “primarily for its engineering qualities,” the Minnesota Historical Society reported. The bridge was one of the few non-buildings in the register at the time, joining what the newspaper called “an elite group of engineering marvels of American history.”

The bridge’s life in the second half of the 1970s was marked by many changes at the helm. Bob Brown, bridge supervisor since 1968, retired in 1974. Harold Bilsey, on the job since 1946, took his place. But Bilsey took charge for just two years before passing the baton to another member of the class of ’46, Richard Lyons, in 1976. Lyons’ tenure at the top also lasted only two years before he retired. In 1978 Don Bowen, who began on the bridge in 1957, took over for Lyons. Bowen would hold the position for four years.

The 1980s: 59,986 Lifts

In 1982 a nineteen-year-old man made the same mistake Melvin Halverson made in 1934: he tried to hang from the bridge as it raised. Frank Weber and his friend, Tom Hanna, both of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, were visiting the canal on a Sunday afternoon in September with their girlfriends. Weber, who Hanna described as “adventurous,” thought he could easily accomplish the feat. The bridge was lifting for a small sailboat, and Weber thought it would only raise about twenty feet and not stay up for long. He was wrong. As Weber began his ascent, he called for Hanna to join him as both girls urged them not to. Hanna didn’t see his friend lose his grip, but when Weber began to fall Hanna rushed beneath him. “I just ran there to break his fall,” Hanna told the Duluth News Tribune. Weber landed hard on Hanna, breaking his friend’s leg in the process. Hanna’s efforts were for naught; Weber died at the scene. A nursing supervisor at St. Luke’s Hospital said the young man “had so many injures that we are not sure which ones he died from.”

That same year supervisor Don Bowen handed the controls to Steve Douville, already on the bridge for ten years. Douville would guide the bridge until its one hundredth anniversary in 2005.

In January 1985 city councilor Arno Kahn made an effort to bring back the bridge rides. Duluth Public Information Director Jerry Sabick saw the potential of big trouble with the rides: pedestrians crossing Lake Avenue to get on the bridge could cause traffic delays or accidents, human cargo would put unnecessary stress on the bridge operators, loading and unloading riders could delay a vessel’s passage or back up road traffic, and, of course, a number of safety issues came to mind. Sabick also doubted that fees paid by riders could cover the cost of four attendants, building a cage that held fifty people, equipping the bridge with added cameras for safety, and the necessary liability insurance. In the end a warning by the state killed the project: the bridge was about to undergo a $4.6 million renovation, and if it was going to be used to give tourists rides, the state probably wouldn’t help pay for the project, because it would in part be liable if an accident occurred on the bridge it financed.

The project began in the spring of 1986 and called for a refitting of the bridge’s mechanics. Cars had become heavier over the years and traffic increased dramatically, thereby increasing the load—and stress—on the bridge. To reduce structural stress, the operating machinery, housed in the operators house’s top level at the span’s center, would move to each end of the lift span, with machinery houses to contain them—so a new operators house was needed as well. The old battery system of powering the bridge would finally be retired, replaced by standard electricity. The old rivets would go, nuts and bolts in their place. The approaches would be rebuilt; the 1 7/8-inch counterweight cables would be replaced with new cables. Finally, the bridge would receive a fresh coat of paint. Johnson Brothers of Litchfield, Minnesota, took on the project as its general contractor.

A computer system for controlling the bridge’s speed was also added to its arsenal of instruments. “The bridge computer system was a real challenge,” Douville recalled in 2008. “Its ability to control two separate machinery spaces roughly a city block apart was amazing. Raising, lowering, starting, stopping, acceleration, and deceleration at various speeds and under various load conditions was truly too good to be true—the malfunctions ranged from the mysterious to the serious.” As Douville suggests, along with added convenience, it created a few problems. A $1,000 card in the computer frequently acted up, and at least once it shut the bridge down when the span was fifteen feet from fully raised. Whenever the problem occurred, operators were forced to raise the bridge manually, which took about eighteen minutes—nearly ten times the rate under regular power. The computer malfunctioned half a dozen times in 1989, but when you consider that the bridge lifted 6,390 times that year, the problem was relatively minor.

During the bridge’s renovation, workers removed the floodlights installed in the 1960s. In 1987 the Duluth Rotary Club donated $25,000 to pay for new lights, thirty-two high-pressure sodium floodlights that bathed the bridge in a golden glow. Bridge operators lit the new lamps for the first time on July 4, 1987, following the city’s annual fireworks show over the harbor.

Throughout the decade, Canal Park underwent a renaissance. The 1980s saw other major changes in Duluth, not the least of which was extending Interstate 35—which had previously terminated at Mesaba Avenue—around downtown through a series of tunnels all the way to Twenty-Sixth Avenue East. The highway extension in turn created the Lakewalk and Lakeplace Park and added a rose garden to Leif Erickson Park. The short stretch of Minnesota Point north of the Corps of Engineers building to Michigan Street changed as well. The Lake Avenue viaduct came down and Lake Avenue crossed the highway (which replaced most of the railroad tracks) following the path of First Avenue East, which long before had been known as St. Croix Avenue. What had been Lake Avenue north of the old viaduct—the stretch that lead to the bridge—was renamed Canal Park Drive. Industrial complexes and warehouses were replaced by or converted into restaurants, shops, and hotels. Endion Station, originally located at 15th Avenue East and South Street, was moved to the area to save it from destruction due to highway construction. Groups organized to promote the city as a tourist destination dubbed the entire area north of the ship canal and south of the new highway the “Canal Park District” (or, when including the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center and Lake Superior Aquarium, the “Downtown Waterfront”). Soon just about everyone referred to the entire area as Canal Park.

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