The Battle to Convert the Aerial Bridge

Samuel Clark Dick, the man behind the Park Point Community Club’s drive to convert the transfer bridge into the lift bridge. (Image: Zenith City Press)

An Old Idea Returns

The residents of Park Point had never held their tongues when it came to matters of crossing the canal, but by 1927 they were ready to put their money where their mouths were. On January 27, representatives of the Park Point Community Club—an organization that acted in many ways as the community’s own form of government—approached the City Council with a well planned and well presented proposal. After showing the inadequacy and rising cost of operating the ferry bridge, they proposed an idea that had already been proven successful all over the world: a vertical lift bridge, very much like the one John Alexander Low Waddell had submitted to the 1891 contest. (In 1894 Waddell’s plans for a bridge in Duluth became the first modern vertical lift bridge in the United States, Chicago’s South Halsted Street bridge.) A lift bridge would allow continuous foot and vehicle traffic except when raised to allow vessel passage. The group had also hired the Kansas City firm of Harrington, Howard & Ash to draw up the plans presented to the councilors. Founded in 1914, HH&A was well respected in the field of bridge design. Before 1928 they had about three dozen vertical lift bridges to their credit and, in 1931, would design the lift bridge at Stillwater, Minnesota. The firm’s principal partner, John L. Harrington, was a gifted civil engineer who had earlier been partnered with Waddell.

The firm’s drawings called for a twenty-four-foot-wide roadway with two streetcar tracks and pedestrian sidewalks on either side. Harrington explained that the vertical lift was a well known concept, so it required no cutting-edge engineering or materials. The new bridge could also incorporate much of the existing structure, saving both costs and time. As did the original aerial bridge, it fit the site well since land for the long approaches required by a traditional bridge simply did not exist. Tunneling was far too costly, and a lifting roadway would give far quicker crossings than the old ferry car. Perhaps most importantly, the new bridge would be no more a potential hindrance to shipping than the present one.

Park Point resident Samuel Clark Dick spoke on behalf of the club, arguing the necessity of a new bridge, which the club believed could be built with minimal disruption at a reasonable cost. The group estimated the cost at $550,000 and the Park Pointers, in a gesture of civic unselfishness, offered to pay one third of the cost—$180,000—through special assessments on their properties. As proof of its sincerity, the group provided a petition signed by 235 Park Point property owners representing 39 percent of the owners and 49 percent of the taxed property on the Point. Dick reportedly traveled to New York City to obtain the signature of Julius Barnes, the largest land owner on the Point; at the time, Barnes, who financed the Duluth Boat Club, was serving as the president of the United States Chamber of Commerce, headquartered in New York. The Council recognized a good thing when it saw one. Council member Herbert Tischer moved to refer the petition for the construction of “a steel lift bridge” to the city assessor to look into property ownership matters. Acting at its regular meetings in February, the Council passed the necessary resolutions to get the project moving.

Building the new bridge forced the city to jump through some of the same hoops it had navigated with the original bridge’s construction. The city could not issue bonds for its two thirds of the cost ($370,000) without the sanction of the Minnesota State Legislature, and even then a special election would be needed to secure the approval of the city’s voters for the special bond issue. The bridge’s towers, new or old, still stood on Federal land—so Congress (both the House and Senate), the Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Army, and the Department of War all needed to sign off regarding land use. The Corps also administered the ship canal and had deeply protective feelings about possible impediments to passage through it. The Lake Carriers Association represented the interests of the shipping industry and, in the real world of politics and commerce, their approval was also necessary. Finally, of course, the city needed a contractor to actually build it.

There would be other distractions as well, such as former Park Point resident Walter R. Mathew’s idea to replace the ferry with a suspension bridge. But there were two major problems with Mr. Mathew’s idea: its estimated cost would far exceed that of the lift bridge, and the northern approach would have to begin at Superior Street, creating other traffic issues. It was quickly dismissed.

The city really didn’t have the time to entertain alternative ideas. It had to act fast: municipal elections were scheduled for April 5, 1927, and bonds to fund the bridge could only be issued by amendment to the city charter, which had to be approved by the voters. Notice of a charter amendment had to be made public at least thirty days before an election, so on February 28 the Council told the City Clerk to get it done. Permission from the state arrived only a few days later. During the first week of March the State Legislature enacted its permission for Duluth to proceed. It was a largely pro forma action and passed unanimously with Governor Theodore Christiansen signing it on March 5.

An editorial in the Duluth Evening Herald on March 19, 1927, titled “The Aerial Bridge Acts Up” may have helped the bond issue’s chances. The editor observed that twice already in 1927 cables on the ferry bridge had broken, stopping bridge service and forcing Park Pointers to “make a perilous boat trip across the canal through a floating field of broken ice.” It went on: “At its best, the aerial bridge, interesting though it may be to tourists as a novelty, is utterly inadequate, and is costing the city a great deal of money through the delay in traffic it steadily causes. At its worst the aerial bridge is nearing the end of its usefulness, and before long it will be dangerous.”

The editorial may not have been needed. Duluthians voiced relatively little controversy over the issue of a new bridge and approved the bonding by a vote of 16,433 to 9,326—nearly 64 percent approval. The next day the Duluth News-Tribune editorialized that “the old, picturesque aerial bridge which has about outlived its usefulness, will be replaced. This was a worthy proposal and the people of the city showed very good judgment in supporting it. The people living on the Point made a most generous offer…and the new bridge will benefit the entire city.”

Pursuing Approval

The next step involved getting the approval of the Lake Carriers Association, whose annual meeting was scheduled for April 21 in Cleveland, Ohio. Duluth sent City Attorney John Richards, armed with statements of support from several Duluth civic organizations, to argue its cause. John Harrington and Ernest Howard, the two consulting engineers who had designed the new bridge, accompanied Richards to explain how the bridge would work and how it would not interrupt ship traffic, the LCA’s main concern. Harrington showed, with detailed photos and charts, the operation and structure of the proposed bridge and assured his audience that no impediments to shipping would result. The LCA gave the project their blessing the same day.

Still, none of the legislation nor the LCA’s acceptance mattered one bit without the Corps of Engineers’ approval. The City met with Major R. W. Crawford, the District Engineer in Duluth and the man in charge of the canal, and laid out its plan to him. Crawford found few problems with Duluth’s proposal and forwarded it to Major Edgar Jadwin, the chief Army engineer in Washington. Jadwin and his staff seemed to have little objection and provided a lengthy set of rules and procedures for operating the new bridge. They also concluded that an act of Congress would be necessary before they could permit the work to begin; there was no avoiding the Army’s chain of command.

So in December 1927 Minnesota’s representatives in Washington introduced bills in their respective bodies of Congress. Congressman William L. Carss of Duluth introduced the House bill on December 5 and Senator Henrik Shipstead brought the same legislation to the Senate on the 15th.

In June some Duluthians started uttering disparaging words. Twenty-five Park Point property owners who had refused to sign the Community Club’s petition brought a suit against the City; even if the majority of their neighbors were for it, they did not wish to be assessed a fee for the bridge, which would come to about $52 per lot. Some of the land owners—whom the paper r eferred to as the “Park Point Insurgents”—owned multiple lots, and their share in the assessment was over $2,000. The suit alleged that the assessments violated the city charter and that they would exceed any benefit derived by them; the bridge ought to be entirely paid for out of general tax revenues since it benefited all Duluthians, it argued. The case dragged out until October 1928, when former Duluth Mayor C. R. Magney, now a district court judge, heard the case; Magney was not concerned with the necessity of a new bridge or its design, only whether city officials had violated the charter; he decided they had not.

When Congress reconvened in January 1928, it moved on the bills introduced by Carss and Shipstead back in December. Bills legalizing local projects are usually not controversial, particularly when no federal money is involved, and the House and Senate passed them in mid-January 1928. President Calvin Coolidge dutifully signed the legislation on February 16 and it went to the Secretary of War Dwight F. Davis for the Army’s approval, the last the City needed. Permission from Davis arrived on April 16. Only two obstacles remained: finding a company to build the bridge and the money to pay them.

By August 20 Duluth had put in place provisions to begin selling bonds. Bearing 4 1/2 percent interest, the bonds would be sold in $1,000 denominations and mature in 1943, investors being paid their principle and interest “in the gold coin of the United States of America.” While on the surface the bonds amounted to $370,000, the bridge’s true cost to the city—principal, interest, and a State-required cushion—would come to slightly over $530,000. Combined with the Park Point special assessment of $180,000, the grand total of the bridge’s conversion cost came to about $710,000.

But there was one more idea still on the table, and it could greatly affect the conversion’s cost. The City Council asked its special Bridge Committee to examine the idea of making the bridge substantial enough to carry freight trains, which in turn would revive the long-held idea that the bay side of Minnesota Point could be turned into miles of valuable dockage, industrializing the Point. The committee found that the additional costs and time to alter the plans at that stage were not only unfeasible, but  would also delay construction. The report also indicated that a bigger bridge could have sunk the entire project. Park Point’s own bridge committee made vigorous objections to the alterations. If the plans were altered for heavy rail, city officials feared that Park Pointers would withdraw their offer to pay for one third of the costs. Without the Park Pointers’ support, the idea died.

With the bond drive underway and the heavy rail idea settled, on September 17 the Council authorized advertisement for bids to construct “a steel lift type bridge across the United States ship canal at an estimated cost of $549,000 in accordance with the plans and specifications on file in the office of the city engineer.” The city received two proposals by the deadline, but when city officials opened them on October 20, they were shocked. The American Bridge Company, C. A. P. Turner’s old employer, bid $683,807 while Peppard and Fulton of St. Paul, builders of Ashland’s 1916 ore dock, bid $692,420.50. The Duluth News-Tribune sadly reported that the bids were $130,000 too high and the City would have to call for new bids, dashing the original plan of constructing the bridge starting in late 1928 and opening in 1929.

Commissioner Phillips summarized the problem in a report to the Council. The original specifications called for construction after the close of the 1928 shipping season and winter work simply cost more; steel erection was more dangerous in cold weather and pouring concrete in the cold required special precautions. The issue of crossing the canal during construction also played a part: a temporary bridge had been proposed, and building it would add to the cost. These issues, Phillips explained, not only drove up the cost but also deterred some contractors from bidding at all. They would have to re-advertise for bids to do the work over the summer without a temporary bridge and revive the old ferry service for the duration of the construction work.

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