Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1863, the son of a Presbyterian minister, Thomas McGilvray attended private schools and earned an engineering degree at the University of Edinburgh. After his father died, twenty-one-year-old McGilvray emigrated to North America armed with a letter of recommendation from his maternal grandfather, noted botanist Sir William Hooker. The letter landed him work as a surveyor for the Canadian Pacific Railroad in Calgary in 1884. This led to a job in Minneapolis with the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Sault Ste. Marie (or “Soo Line”) Railway.
In 1887 he was briefly employed as county surveyor for Pine County, Minnesota, before going to work for StP&D. Working out of St. Paul, McGilvray began to put his stamp on Duluth on behalf of StP&D as early as 1887. He laid the foundation of the Duluth Union Depot and designed the street layout for Smithville and portions of West Duluth the railroad owned, and oversaw the construction of the Sixth Avenue Viaduct.
City directories first list McGilvray as a Duluth resident in 1891, employed with the firm of Patton & Frank owned by William B. Patton and Charles P. Frank. Patton had been Duluth’s City Engineer in 1885 and operated a number of engineering firms in Duluth. When Patton again became Duluth’s City Engineer in 1893, McGilvray started his own firm, Rice & McGilvray, with Samuel L. Rice. After Rice moved from Duluth in 1895, McGilvray went into private practice and did some work for the city, designing Lakeside’s street layout and Duluth’s water works, among other projects. In 1897 he replaced Patton as Duluth’s City Engineer for the first time, and the question of crossing the canal had officially fallen to him. He knew well the problems faced by the previous ideas for Boller’s swing bridge, Sooy Smith’s tunnel, and Waddell’s lift bridge.He needed a completely new approach, and he found one in the work of Ferdinand Arnodin, a French Engineer who had built an aerial transfer bridge over the River Seine at Rouen, France.
McGilvray was also a good friend of John A. Johnson, who became Minnesota’s governor in 1905. In June of his first year in office, Johnson appointed McGilvray to his staff as an aide de camp and bestowed upon him the rank of Colonel (his friends would later use the title as a nickname). The new title came as a surprise to McGilvray, who knew nothing of it until he had returned from a fishing trip with his wife, Roselda, whom he called “Rosie.” Mrs. McGilvray was also active in Duluth social circles, frequently making the newspaper’s society page for hosting events such as a gathering at their East Second Street home to play 500, a card game much like euchre. As a member of the governor’s staff, in 1908 McGilvray traveled to the Shiloh Civil War battlefield in southwestern Tennessee for the dedication of a monument to the Minnesota soldiers who died in the famous battle. On his return, McGilvray sported a button that read “John A. Johnson, Our Next President” and spoke of how everywhere the governor had gone, “people turned out by the thousands to greet him.”
Not that McGilvray’s duties to the government stopped him from remaining passionate about his job: When the Duluth Commercial Club—a predecessor to today’s Chamber of Commerce— called the condition of Duluth’s streets “deplorable” in 1908, the Engineer from Aberdeen charged the organization with slander and spat back that its report contained “mischievous and either grossly superficial or wholly biased statements.” While his confirmation as City Engineer in 1897 had come with some dissent, after the bridge went up, strongly Democratic Duluth loved him. At the end of Mayor Cullum’s term in 1908, newly elected Republican Mayor R. D. Haven tried to appoint another engineer to McGilvray’s job, but the overwhelmingly Democratic Common Council “refused to affirm the mayor’s appointment,” the newspaper reported. Just two years later, Cullum defeated Haven to take his job back (Duluth mayors held two-year terms at the time) and McGilvray’s position was no longer in question.
Thomas McGilvray died at his Third Street home on November 25, 1957. The Scottish engineer had lived ninety-seven years and his health had declined rapidly in his last year. In 1933 McGilvray had returned to his old post as Duluth’s City Engineer and served until he finally retired in 1941 at seventy-two years old.
A year before McGilvray’s death, a reporter had sat with him alongside the canal, watching ships pass and the bridge raise and lower. As the old engineer discussed both his transfer bridge and “that up-and-down gadget” that replaced it, his voice still rolled with a Scottish burr even after living in the U.S. for over seventy-five years. “It’s been a good bridge,” he told the reporter, “But some day it will have to go. Every bridge runs itself out of business.” He was referring to the fact that bridges eventually become obsolete due to changes in use: either the bridge is no longer required or can no longer handle the loads, whether it be increased traffic or increased weight.
“I knew that when I built the aerial bridge,” he said. “So I can’t say I’m sorry to see it reaching the end of its usefulness. I’m pleased that it served as long as it has but you can’t allow sentiment to stand in the way of progress.”
The newspaper’s headline was a bit dramatic: “Says Its Builder: City’s Famed Bridge Doomed.”