The Aerial Transfer Bridge Opens

Passengers depart the Duluth Aerial Transfer Bridge ca. 1905. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

April saw more delays, and horses were temporarily barred as workers paved the bridge’s approaches. Atop the car’s cabins, workers installed the two red range lights called for in the operating regulations. General Electric installed an electric brake; speed had previously been controlled by reversing the engines. To keep in step with government operating regulations, McGilvray ordered a bell to announce the ferry car’s movement. The car closed to passenger service for several days as workers stretched a phone cable across the bridge to provide service to Park Point and finished painting the car, according to the paper, in a “very handsome red birch finish.” By May 1 it would be running flawlessly.

The Duluth Evening Herald described another maintenance operation on April 7 under the banner headline “nerve wracking feat by bridgemen.” To gain access to the upper truss, which needed some additional riveting work, two of MSS’s steel workers used the bridge’s cables as an elevator to propel themselves to the truss. They did not want to climb ladders while weighed down with heavy bags full of rivets.

The next day the paper described how the men, with the bags of tools and rivets slung over their necks, climbed to the roof of the ferry car and, just as the car started across the canal, grabbed onto the cable, which “snatched them aloft at a terrible speed.” Fifteen seconds later they came to the tricky part: getting off while the cable kept moving; they only had a fraction of a second to release from the cable and swing themselves onto the truss or they would be dragged through the pulley and either crushed or thrown 135 feet into the canal below. That method of conveyance was “not likely to become popular with the traveling public,” the reporter joked. At the company’s request, the names of the daredevil bridge workers were withheld lest they encourage such “fool-hardiness.”

April 7 also saw what was likely the first boat to pass beneath the bridge entering the canal from the lakeward side. The Bon Ami, a 108-foot wood steamer, had set out for Port Wing and Herbster, fishing towns along the Wisconsin South Shore. The ice forced her back to Duluth, and she entered the harbor’s safety through the canal, and therefore under the bridge. Not until April 20 did the E. N. Saunders come in off the lake to become the first vessel to navigate from Sault Ste. Marie to Duluth and enter through the canal, under the bridge.

On April 8, a bright, sunny Sunday—and the first weekend day the bridge was open to the public—the city wanted to find out if the bridge could operate to capacity. Assistant Engineer Coe wished to see if it could carry fifty thousand people in a single day. The newspaper wondered if there were “enough people in Duluth to test the carrying capacity.” The car had been averaging about two hundred people a trip during busy weekday hours, the paper said, adding that “five hundred people on a trip is no crowd for that car.”

The paper was right. In fact, one trip at 3:30 p.m. that Sunday took 814 passengers—an estimated fifty-five tons of human cargo. The engineers counted 32,595 people boarding the car in one twelve hour and twenty minute span, thanks in part to beautiful weather and an average trip time of just seventy seconds. So many people ventured across the canal that day that during its peak period, between 3 and 4 p.m., Lake Avenue was clogged with people from the canal north to Superior Street—half on their way to the bridge, half on their way back. So many people rode the ferry bridge that day the paper reported that, “the deck flooring was worn smooth.”

That record-setting day also saw the first automobile to cross the canal—which, subsequently, also became the first car to motor on Park Point. The car, an electric Studebaker-Stanhope, was owned and driven by Edward J. Filiatrault, who was accompanied by Dr. Thomas F. Sheridan, a local dentist. On his return trip Filiatrault handed Lowry his calling card so his accomplishment would be remembered. It also may have been a sales gimmick: Filiatrault and Emil A. Nelson owned the first car dealership in Duluth, the Mutual Electric and Auto Co.

As if to reassure the public, the newspaper mentioned that “baby cabs were sprinkled among all the loads throughout the day, many of them being in the care of mothers who had no hesitancy in boarding the ferry with the little ones.” In fact, only once did anyone balk at crossing. Two young women, awaiting a trip across at the north pier, “quailed when they saw the  singular car approach” and turned back toward Lake Avenue. The paper then mentioned a number of “Sunday school” children who boarded without fear. In fact, those who counted the crowds estimated that nearly a third of passengers were children. They also thought that perhaps one-fourth of Duluth’s citizens crossed the canal that day.

Like the two frightened young ladies, not everyone thought of the bridge as an improvement. At least one man, describing the bridge in a postcard bearing its image, implied that he missed the adventure of crossing in a boat, writing of the bridge: “Quicker and safer, but not nearly as much fun as crossing on the old ferry.”

A handful of local boys thought the bridge was much more fun. On April 28 the Duluth News-Tribune reported that “half a dozen boys of various ages” dodged the bridge operator, climbed on the girders below decks of the ferry car and rode the ferry clinging by their fingers just thirteen feet above the water. Alone at the controls, Adrian could do nothing to stop them. If they had lost their grip, the boys would certainly have drowned in the canal’s currents.

On May 5, 1905, even though MSS still had five months left on their obligation of guaranteed flawless operation, the City officially took possession of the bridge and placed it under the jurisdiction of the Board of Public Works. While the bridge had officially opened for business, work continued throughout the summer. In June workers installed lightning arrestors—spires that rise from the corners of the bridge’s north and south towers.

But soon after the City took possession, the bridge stopped operating smoothly. Several of the wheels inside the truck had broken. Inspectors discovered that the truck system that the girders holding the ferry car rode on had been engineered too rigidly. MSS was called back, under the terms of their contract, and made repeated attempts to remodel the old truck system. But it was still not operating properly in October, when Mayor Cullum wrote the Common Council that “it cannot be said . . . that their six months’ trial has been entirely successful.” He urged the Council to “consider these matters in their financial settlement with the Bridge Company” and, if the City Attorney advised, delay final payment to the company until they fully resolved the problem. City officials reinstated the ferry service while the bridge underwent these repairs. As the year ended, MSS was still hard at work on the problem.

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