The Aerial Lift Bridge 1930–2005

Minnesota Point from above the bridge, a rare view provided by one of the cranes used in the 1999–2000 renovation. (Image: Duluth Shipping News)

The 1990s: 53,856 Lifts

As the 1990s began tragedy hit the bridge again in what is arguably the most notorious event in the bridge’s history. At 11:30 a.m. on a beautiful Sunday in June 1990, as the bridge prepared to lift to allow the Vista King to pass under it, fifty-year-old Barbara Ann Paplior got on despite the warning lights flashing and bells sounding. She may have been disoriented; her family later said she suffered from manic-depressive disorder and had experienced a psychotic episode just two days earlier. She was almost halfway across when she realized the bridge was rising—and she panicked. Witnesses told the news media that she screamed, “Help me! Somebody help me, please!” If she would have stayed on the sidewalk and not moved, she could have safely rode up and back down on the bridge, but she apparently didn’t know that. She ran back toward the north approach and, when the bridge was thirty to forty feet above the ground, she leaned over and attempted to jump. But she became caught in a V of the bridge’s metalwork, facing west with her legs sticking out toward the lake. As the lift span continued upward, it carried Paplior toward the stationary north tower; dismembered by the rising bridge, she died instantly. Witnesses described the event as gruesome. The bridge’s operators were unaware of the mishap until after it had happened and witnesses called 911.

Later that summer the Park Point Community Club revived its efforts to reduce the number of times the bridge lifted. The club made its request to the Coast Guard because the issue essentially came down to navigating the canal, which necessitated bridge lifts. A raised bridge could back up traffic for “thirty blocks,” the community argued. In just one July day that summer the bridge rose sixty-five times. The group wanted raising restricted to just once every half hour, with exceptions for commercial boats, government boats, and vessels in distress. Once again, the attempt failed; the Coast Guard cited “paramount rights of navigation” for the denial. City officials made another attempt in 1998, but it fell victim to the same fate.

One has to wonder what the Coast Guard—and the Corps of Engineers, city, and bridge operators, for that matter—thought of an event that took place on the bridge in 1994. Twin Cities–based choreographer Marylee Hardenbergh wanted to stage “Bridge Dancing.” More than a dance piece, it would be performance art: a twenty-three-minute extravaganza with dancers on the lift span, in-line skaters atop the piers carrying vividly colored flags, and kayakers in the canal below all synchronized for an audience standing on the North Pier listening to music composed for the event. Hardenbergh managed to cut through all the red tape required, and the show went on. She even got the Coast Guard enthusiastic enough about the project to join in by including two of its boats in the performance.

Calling the bridge the show’s “star” the Duluth News-Tribune’s art critic Dominic Papatola praised the event as an “elegant, ingenious blend of aesthetics and engineering, of form and function, of fancy and reality” and an “inspired spectacle of color and motion.” Over one thousand people showed up to watch the event, which proved popular enough that Hardenbergh and her dancers came back in August 1996 and gave an encore performance.

As the decade—and indeed, the century—came to a close and the bridge moved closer to its one hundredth year, the bridge again required major work. Earlier in the decade it had experienced two major breakdowns. The first, in 1993, unexpectedly closed the bridge for several days. The motors that raise the lift span fell out of synch. The bridge is normally level throughout the lifting and lowering process. The safety system was designed so that when one end of the span was six inches above the other, the bridge would stop. But the system failed, throwing the span out of skew. According to Douville, “the bridge was out of level (from north to south end) by several feet. Anything over 3 feet is serious. My calculations put the span out of level at somewhere between 5 1/2 and 6 feet—enough to scrape the machinery room roof against the tower, shearing off rivet heads.” It took Douville and his crew six hours to correct problem. In 1995 bridge operators discovered that one of the pulleys had slipped out of its housing, and realigning took nearly a month.

Three years later Duluth hired local firm LHB Engineers and Architects and New York’s Hardesty and Hanover—which has specialized in moving bridges for more than one hundred years—to inspect every inch of the bridge. LHB couldn’t have teamed up with a more appropriate company: Hardesty and Hanover evolved from a company established by John Alexander Low Waddell, the man who in 1892 first came up with the idea of a lift bridge in a contest to find a way of crossing the Duluth Ship Canal (the bridge, the first of its kind, was built in Chicago a year later and survives to this day as the South Halsted Street Bridge). During their inspection, Hardesty and Hanover discovered a 1/16-inch crack in the southwest sheave’s axle shaft, caused by the extra weight added to the bridge during the 1986 renovation. Each sheave axle is 16 inches around and weighs 5,000 pounds, hefty enough to support the combined weight of the span, counterweights, and cables—half a million pounds for each axle. The shaft was repaired, but it wouldn’t be the only fix the bridge required.

Other issues discovered by Hardesty and Hanover would result in another overhaul that would carry on into the next century and call for replacing nearly every moving part of the bridge. Early in 1999 plans for an ambitious renovation had been set. The project would take over a year and cost $5.6 million, but engineers expected that, except for repainting and normal maintenance, the bridge would require no work for the next thirty years. And the city received a lot of help to pay for the project, with federal transportation grants taking care of 80 percent of the costs and the state kicking in the remaining 20 percent. The work was so extensive the bridge didn’t raise for four months from mid December 1999 to March 2000; during that time anything taller than sixteen feet had to enter and leave the Duluth-Superior Harbor through the Superior Entry. One lane was kept open to allow auto and foot traffic to and from Park Point during the renovation.

Engineers prepared an extensive repair and maintenance list that included repaving the approaches, outfitting the machinery rooms with new motors and control panels (and a new control panel in the operators house as well), installing new guard rails along the pedestrian walkways, strengthening the cable anchorage supports at the counterweights and lifting boxes, replacing pins in the balance chains, rebalancing the counterweights, installing new operating cables (increased from 1 7/8 inch diameter to 2 inch), replacing all four sheaves and axle shafts as well as the pulleys that the cables run on, and reinforcing the structural steel along portions of the bridge atop each tower. The bridge’s lower portion—exposed to road salt during the winters—would be repainted. Finally, the air horn atop the north machinery room would be removed and reinstalled atop the operators house.

The ever-malfunctioning computer-controlled operating system installed in 1985 would also be replaced, but not with another computer system. The new controls operate much more simply; after all, as Duluth Public Works Director Richard “Dick” Larson explained to reporters in 1999, “there are only two things this bridge needs to be told to do: go up and go down.” The old control system was simply more complicated than necessary, explained LHB vice president Joe Litmann.

Work on the project began in October 1999 when a crew from Lunda Construction of Black River Falls, Wisconsin—the project’s general contractor—started moving parts, cranes, and other heavy equipment to a staging area at the foot of the bridge off the North Pier. One crane set up in front of the Corps of Engineers Building, the other alongside the South Pier. For work atop the bridge in the cold of winter, plywood “houses” were built and rigged with heat and bathroom facilities. (In case you were wondering, bridge operators use a bathroom located in the “office” below the South Pier approach.)

One big change during the renovation was that workers replaced the air horn with a quieter horn at the Coast Guard’s request. Folks didn’t like it, especially Susan Mattis Turnham and Connie Bloom, who started a petition drive calling for the old horn’s return. To Turnham, the old horn’s sound was the voice of the bridge, and the new horn had taken away its identity. Bloom thought the new horn sounded “like a car horn,” hardly befitting of the bridge’s majesty. Even the Coast Guard, who requested the quieter horn, complained that the new tooter wasn’t loud enough for boats to hear a mile away, as required. Mayor Gary Doty agreed with Turnham, Bloom, and the Coast Guard—or at the very least, under public pressure he recognized an easy fix when he saw it. In May 2000 he ordered the old horn’s return. Luckily, bridge supervisor Steve Douville had saved the old horn, anticipating just such a scenario.

The 21st Century: 45,872 Lifts (and Counting)

With work on the bridge’s most complete overhaul and renovation finished in late 2000, the bridge entered the twenty-first century in the best shape it had been in since 1930. The next year the bridge marked a milestone when Paula Hanela joined the crew on March 5, 2001, as the first female bridge operator in the structure’s history.

As 2005 approached, the city had done little to prepare for the span’s one hundred year anniversary. It wasn’t until January 2005 that the Aerial Lift Bridge Centennial Committee was created and Mayor Herb Bergson declared 2005 “The Year of the Lift Bridge.” To some, the committee’s name and Bergson’s proclamation suggested that the city had gotten off on the wrong foot; after all, it was the one hundredth anniversary of the Duluth Aerial Bridge; the Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge was only turning seventy-five.

Semantics aside, the committee had little time to pull something together. With the theme “Get Bridged” the committee held a logo design contest which was won, appropriately enough, by Dick Green, grandson of original bridge boss Leonard Green. The celebrations kicked off with an event at the St. Louis County Arts & Heritage Center, with guests ranging from Jack Hicken (son of transfer bridge operator John Hicken) to retiring bridge supervisor Steve Douville.

The committee teamed up with Duluth’s Greater Downtown Council to place decorated bridge statues at various locations throughout the city, an idea inspired by the Charles Shulz “Peanuts” statues that graced St. Paul in the 1990s. Individuals or organizations could sponsor a bridge sculpture and decorate it with a theme of their choosing. The Duluth News Tribune, for example, decorated its bridge with headlines from the newspaper of major events that occurred during the bridge’s first one hundred years.

Many local artists got into the act by creating souvenir products such as shirts, mugs, blankets, jewelry, glass etchings, and posters either in the shape of the bridge or featuring images of the bridge. Ken Newhams’ Duluth Shipping News produced a DVD on the bridge, and Dinehery Fence made steel-fabricated replicas of the bridge. Four songs about the aerial bridge were composed, and of course the Park Point Community Club got involved. They gathered three hundred recipes and published them in a book titled Get Bridged.

Local artist Gary Lundstrom—whose Great Lake Design specializes in creating memorabilia featuring landmark images of western Lake Superior, including the aerial bridge—threw himself into the event. Besides creating an entire line of bridge centennial commemoratives, Lundstrom organized the centennial kick-off at the Depot in combination with two bridge history exhibits he designed and created. He also asked the Duluth community to come forward with bridge-related stories, photos, and any older bridge memorabilia they had on their mantles or in their attics. People came forth with all sorts of items bearing images of the bridge, some of the transfer bridge, some the lift. Silver spoons, fine china (pitchers, vases, serving plates, lace plates, cups and saucers), bottle openers, Zippo lighters, antique postcards (one made of brass), salt and pepper cellars, metal items (napkin rings, pen holders, letter openers, spoons, a cigar box), a gold locket, and even a pocket watch with an engraving of the lift bridge presented to Samuel Clark Dick by the residents of Park Point. Dick had been president of the Park Point Community Club in the 1920s and worked almost obsessively on the petition to convert the transfer bridge.

Lundstrom photographed the memorabilia and put the images together with the historic photos he had gathered in a handsome volume with a brushed metal cover called “The Aerial Bridge History Album.” He only made five copies and donated one each to the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center, the St. Louis County Historical Society, the Duluth Public Library, and the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center. The fifth is in his possession. (Lundstrom continues to gather personal stories and images associated with the bridge; contact him through www.greatlakesgiftsandgallery.com.)

For the real bridge buffs, retired historian and Park Point resident Jerry Sandvick donned a conductor’s uniform much like those worn by the transfer bridge operators from 1905 to 1929 and provided free “Bridge Tours,” explaining how the mechanics of the bridge work and showing which parts of the bridge are “new” and which remain from the original construction.

Throughout the entire year Duluth News Tribune columnist Chuck Frederick kept track of all the activity surrounding the bridge’s centennial and chased down some great stories about Duluthians and their personal connections to the bridge. His stories were gathered in a special edition commemorative magazine-like book titled Spanning a Century, copies of which can be found at the Duluth Public Library.

In August festivities wrapped up with a celebration at Bayfront Park featuring music from the past one hundred years and an art fair that stretched from the bridge north to the Dewitt- Seitz building. By that point the committee volunteers had become frustrated with the efforts of Mayor Bergson’s administration. Some of the volunteers had invested not only time, but a good deal of money gearing up to celebrate the life of the city’s icon. Many felt that the City had done little to help promote the bridge’s anniversary, and it had gone the summer relatively unnoticed by the public at large. So few people showed up at the August celebration that some of the volunteers said they felt as though their efforts had turned into little more than throwing themselves a party.

But the most significant event of the bridge’s centennial year wasn’t a celebration but a symbolic leap toward the future. Supervisor Steve Douville—on the bridge since April 1972 and the boss beginning May 1982—handed the reins to Ryan Beamer, who first raised the bridge in 1998. Douville’s last lift occurred on his final day of work, March 31, when he raised the bridge for an unscheduled“maintenance lift.” But that symbolic event was delayed as it took Douville longer to reach the bridge operators house than anticipated: the outgoing bridge supervisor got bridged.

With a recently renovated bridge and a solid crew of operators, Beamer looks forward to an uneventful future for the bridge because, as he says, “If the bridge is working correctly and we’re doing our job right, no one notices.” For most people who live in Duluth, it’s hard to imagine the idea that Duluth’s Aerial Bridge could ever go unnoticed. But certainly Beamer and his crew feel the same way as most Duluthians and those who visit Canal Park every year: despite its practical purpose, the bridge always has been and always will be more than just a way of crossing the canal.

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