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The Battle to Convert the Aerial Bridge

C. A. P. Turner. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

C. A. P. Turner Returns

Meanwhile in Minneapolis, C. A. P. Turner had kept a watchful eye on the development of a replacement for the bridge. After all, the aerial bridge helped put Turner on the map as the architect of the first stiff-trussed aerial transfer bridge ever built and he had argued passionately for its proper construction. Turner was not about to keep his ideas about the conversion to himself. He came to Duluth in early November 1928 at the invitation of Public Utilities Commissioner Chris Evans, a fan of Turner’s who was critical of Harrington’s plans. Turner met with city officials, offering alternative plans that would cut costs by nearly $200,000 and expressing his willingness to work with the Kansas City engineers. The essence of his idea was that the bridge’s overhead span did not need to be raised in order to accommodate the lifting roadway to the extent that HH&A had proposed. The old bridge could basically be jacked up about six feet by raising the pier foundations beneath the north and south towers; this, he maintained, would save significant money. Harrington and his associates argued that jacking up the bridge was not only unfeasible, but would not comply with federal requirements. Still, HH&A said they would certainly welcome Turner’s input—probably because they knew the government and the Lake Carriers Association would not approve of Turner’s idea. Rather than ruffle feathers, Harrington and company were likely just playing nice and showing some respect to the famous engineer. But it didn’t help things go more smoothly.

By the time the City Council met on January 14, 1929, to consider its options, things had gotten rather muddled. The Council was split over Harrington’s and Turner’s plans, a new round of bids had been advertised and construction firms were preparing their proposals, and the Corps’ district engineer had objections to certain details.

The Duluth News Tribune reported that the meeting, during which Commissioner Evans introduced a resolution to abandon Harrington’s plans for Turner’s, had broken down into “a heated debate between [commissioners] Evans and Phillips, in which every member of the council and Mr. Turner took part.” Even City Attorney John Richards had his say, stating that he feared changing to Turner’s plan would invalidate the City’s agreement with Park Point residents, and then the City would have to come up with another $180,000 on its own (apparently he ignored Turner’s claims that the alternate plans would cut costs by more than that amount). Before Evans could request a vote on his resolution, Phillips, who had long championed Harrington’s plans, quickly moved to adjourn. Before the adjournment vote could be taken, Evans moved to vote on his resolution. City Clerk Austin Davenport was at a loss until Mayor Snively, also a proponent of Harrington’s plan, reminded him that the first issue before the council was the motion to adjourn. The vote was 3–2 in favor to adjourn; Evans had been silenced. “BRIDGE DEBATE STIRS COUNCIL,” the Duluth Evening Herald headline announced in capital letters.

Evans came to the next meeting, on January 28, with a different approach. In order to put Turner’s plan on the table, Harrington’s would have to come off. So Evans took up the very argument Phillips had used against Turner’s plan at the previous meeting, turned it around, and aimed it at Harrington’s plans: the alterations made by HH&A in order to get more affordable bids, Evans claimed, invalidated the petition granted for the bridge’s construction. After the city attorney advised commissioners on the issue, Evans introduced a lengthy proposal requiring still further changes to the Harrington plan. His strategy may have been to convolute the entire process and throw the project back to the approval process, which would provide him and Turner an opportunity to submit a more complete set of plans—Turner’s idea had also been criticized in the Duluth News Tribune as “not definite enough to bid on.” Whatever the reason, it didn’t work. His fellow commissioners voted the idea down 3–2, with Public Safety Commissioner James E. Foubister his only ally on the council.

Prior to the city council’s next meeting on February 18, the construction bids arrived and were opened by the engineering advisory committee set up to review them: Duluth & Iron Range Railway (D&IR) assistant engineer Oliver H. Dickerson, county highway engineer Sheldon B. Shepard, DM&N chief engineer H. L. Dresser, and Duluth City Engineer John Wilson. Because the work would take place in summer and a temporary bridge was not included, the bids were much lower without compromising any of the Harrington plan. Five bids had been submitted this time around: $520,000 from George Lounsberry and Sons (the only Duluth bidder and a Turner supporter), $508,372 from Pepper & Fulton, $475,571.69 from Wisconsin Bridge & Iron, and $449,600.00, the lowest bid, from the Kansas City Bridge Company (no record of the other losing bid could be found). The engineering advisory committee met all morning, went through all bids in detail, and concluded that any problems with the low bid were minor and solvable. The committee unanimously recommended awarding the contract to the Kansas City Bridge Company (KCBC).

That afternoon, in anticipation of the bridge contract being approved in that day’s city council meeting, an editorial in the Duluth News Tribune said of the matter, “Everything seems lovely with this project, except, of course, the usual bushwhacking which Duluth does not seem able to avoid in its major project. Members of the city council who favor another engineer have set up the customary bedevilment, but that is of little consequence.” The piece concluded that, “Minnesota Point and the community are assured of a fine bridge that will be sightly, safe and practical and that will be built at a reasonable cost.”

Only one obstacle remained: Engineer P. C. Bullard of the Corps of Engineers had problems with the final design, and since the bridge rested on government property Bullard’s approval was necessary. The newspaper had said that it considered the problems “greatly exaggerated in publication”; it should have known, having run a headline the previous day announcing that “Bridge Plans Fail to Meet U.S. Approval.” Major Bullard had three concerns, which were addressed at the city council meeting. He wanted two “comfort stations,” built at either end of the bridge—bathrooms for those waiting for the bridge and for spectators watching it lift. He also thought the lifting system needed additional cables to provide more redundancy and therefore more safety. Both of these demands were considered small modifications and quickly agreed to by Harrington, Howard, and Ash.

The third issue was more serious. Bullard objected to the composition of the new roadway because, in his judgment, it was not fireproof and thus a potential danger to navigation. A concrete roadway was suggested. John Harrington responded for his firm by observing that few movable bridges used concrete roads in order to save both weight and cost. The road as designed would consist of creosote-treated planks thickly surfaced with asphalt. The planking would be laid between steel channels and on top of galvanized steel sheeting and would be more than sufficiently protected from either fire or deterioration. Bullard accepted this point and the roadway’s plans remained unchanged.

Although Harrington assured commissioners that he would send a report explaining as much to the government within the week, Commissioner Evans jumped on the roadway concern and the “bedeviling issue of little consequence” again reared its head. Citing the lack of a fireproof roadway as well as a lack of provisions in the Harrington plan to carry water and power lines over the bridge, he again called for the city to reconsider C. A. P. Turner’s incomplete and likely unacceptable plans.

When the discussion turned into an argument, Mayor Snively moved for another sudden adjournment because Commissioner Phillips, the Harrington plan’s biggest proponent and the best man to counter Evans, was absent. Only four members of the council were in attendance: Snively and Finance Commissioner W. S. McCormick, both for the Harrington plan, and Turner backers Evans and Foubister. Phillips’ absence meant a 2–2 vote, with Snively and McCormick in favor of adjournment while Evans and Foubister wanted to further champion Turner’s plan. With the vote hopelessly deadlocked and the meeting still in session, Snively and McCormick simply walked out.

If City Clerk Austin Davenport had been befuddled at the last meeting, it was nothing compared to the quandary he now faced. No one knew what to do, and spectators began asking each other, “Is it over?” Foubister stayed in his seat until the spectators had cleared the room, remaining even longer than Evans. Davenport merely waited out Foubister, gathering up his records and returning to his office after the commissioner finally left. The next day the headlines roared “COUNCIL BREAKS UP IN BABBLE: Aerial Bridge Problem Disrupts Meeting.”

In the end, just as the Duluth News Tribune had predicted, C. A. P. Turner’s plans indeed had little consequence on the project, but they had made for some entertaining political displays. They had also given Turner his say in the matter of what would become of his beloved aerial transfer bridge. But what about Thomas McGilvray, who first came up with the idea to bridge the canal with an aerial ferry and saw it through its construction and first years of operation? If he had anything to say about the new bridge, it never made the papers. Throughout the effort to push the bridge conversion through to its completion, McGilvray had been quietly working for St. Louis County overseeing the construction of drainage ditches. He publicly held his tongue until a year before his death.

During the following week, Harrington met with Bullard and convinced the government engineer that the road span would indeed be fireproof. With the final obstacle out of the way, the City Council met on February 25 and finally and officially awarded the construction contract to KCBC on an expected 3–2 vote, Phillips, McCormick, and Snively voting in favor and Evans and Foubister against. The next day the Duluth News Tribune applauded the council as performing “a good act Monday when it voted to award the contract for the proposed new bridge over the canal to Park Point, without further talk, wrangling, or discussion.” Later that week the paper announced that work on the bridge would begin before April 1.

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