Aerial Transfer Bridge (1905-1929)

Duluth’s Aerial Transfer Bridge’s gondola car ca. 1907. (Image: Lake Superior Maritime Collection)

Modern Steel Structural, who built the bridge, eventually had to replace the entire overhead works of the bridge where the trucks rolled along the rails; besides the trucks operating poorly, the rail they rolled on had not been properly aligned. With a new truck system in place in early 1906, MSS had satisfied its obligation to Duluth and the bridge, and the City took complete control of the structure.

That April the City settled up with MSS, paying the company $54,734.15—it had already paid the firm $35,000 in September 1904 to get the job started. But the total amount came to $90,000, more than $10,000 less than the contract had called for. Another $6,765.85 went directly to C. A. P. Turner. Back in April 1905, during the bridge’s first month of operation, Turner had written the Common Council explaining that MSS had not met the terms of his contract with them: permitting the use of his patents in exchange for 8 percent of MSS’s contract with the city. When the city plunked down the $35,000 down payment in September 1904, Turner had received $1,400, with a balance due of another $1,400. He never received the second payment. As far as Turner was concerned, until he got that money—and another $3,148 for other work—MSS had “forfeited its rights to the patents.” And since MSS had built the bridge using patents it had no right to, the company certainly couldn’t sell the bridge to the city. By April 1906, interest and other work done by Turner brought the amount to nearly $7,000. In a single resolution the Common Council first paid off Turner, satisfying MSS’s contract with him, then MSS, who was now free to sell the bridge. The remaining $3,500 went to the Duluth Canal Bridge Co. in August 1905, to settle once and for all the issue of who owned the bridge’s foundations.

Duluth did, along with the bridge they lead to.

1906 – 1910: Working Out the Bugs

In March, McGilvray reported that the bridge had run perfectly since February 6, handling two hundred to three hundred teams of horses and thirty thousand people a day. He estimated the cost of operating the bridge, including the $4,000 in interest on the bond, at $10,578.31. It may not have been as big a savings from the ferry operation as anticipated, but McGilvray’s spin on the numbers illustrates the bargain that was the bridge: it cost the city “one-fifth of one cent per passenger for operation, maintenance, interest, and power.” He closed his report with a request for the city to install a telephone in the ferry car so its operator could call for help should the car break down in the middle of the canal. It was not granted.

Over the next year, McGilvray continued to petition the city for improvements on the bridge, mostly for safety. A metal net was installed over the ferry car to protect passengers and teams from falling icicles and McGilvray requested a hand-railed gangway on the lower chord of the truss and a covered stairway to access the truss—he wanted to stop the “dangerous acrobatic feats” required of bridge workers to maintain the structure. At his request, the Common Council sought bids for a rowboat for the purpose of “saving human lives and otherwise.” They also allowed him to purchase duplicate parts—such as wheels, hangers, and cable—to have on hand in case of failure. The Common Council records for 1906–1907 show that the Council granted each of the engineer’s requests save one: he had again asked for a telephone, and the Council took no action.

In February 1907 the Duluth Evening Herald reaffirmed McGilvray’s report to the city, reporting that the ferry had not missed a trip in a year, having safely moved 50,000 teams and 2,500,000 passengers making six to eight passes an hour. Already people were guessing as to how long the bridge’s capacity could keep up with increasing demand to cross the canal, and some speculated that it was only a matter of time before a private enterprise tunneled the canal in order to reach the point by rail and exploit its industrial potential. Turning Park Point into an industrial center would render the ferry bridge obsolete.

Of course, the tunnel and the industrialization of Park Point never occurred, but that didn’t mean the bridge didn’t get busier. As its use increased, so did the population and activity on Park Point; both the city and the community south of the canal did their best to keep up. An example of this occurred in November 1907, when the Common Council asked the Duluth Street Railway Company and the Park Point Street Railway Company —which operated as wholly separate entities—to allow riders to use transfers when getting off one streetcar line to cross on the aerial bridge so they wouldn’t have to pay an additional five-cent fare to use the streetcar on the other side. Few of Park Point’s residents worked south of the canal, and Alderman Joseph Hartel argued it wasn’t fair to have them pay twenty cents a day to commute to work when most of the city’s citizens paid nothing. Meanwhile, heating systems were added to the ferry car to keep passengers warm in winter weather. In his 1907 report, McGilvray once again asked for a phone as well as two more electric motors because in cases where one motor had shorted out, the other motor strained to propel the ferry car.

It wasn’t all work and no play for McGilvray during this crucial time in the bridge’s life. The engineer enjoyed an active life and was the skipper of his curling team—and a pretty good one at that. In 1903 the Duluth News Tribune ran a caricature of McGilvray dressed in plaids, donning an oversized tam-o’-shanter cap, and ready to launch a curling stone; beneath the drawing was a limerick: “Here’s Thomas McGilvray, you see. / As a skip he’s a winner, B-gee! / When he starts in to curl / The game goes with a whirl. / His opponents are all up a tree.”

With the bridge operating apparently perfectly by 1907, its history became one of maintenance and incidents surrounding it and the canal it crossed. In November 1908 another great storm hit the western tip of Lake Superior, causing lake waters to roll so high bridge operations had to be suspended for the first time since the Mataafa Storm: the paper reported that “the car cannot cross the canal without being struck by waves.” Considering that the bridge rested fifteen feet above the canal’s waters, waves had to have been at least that high. Water easily crested over the canal’s piers; a few old-timers said it was the highest they’d seen since the construction of the “ditch”—higher than the Mataafa Storm. After a couple of rather rough crossings, the bridge operator phoned the Board of Public Works, saying that the bridge could be damaged; certainly its electric motors, mounted beneath the car, would short out because of the water. Councilors must have finally heeded McGilvray’s request for a telephone.

The paper noted that the car had been tied up “on the Duluth side.” Of course, both sides of the canal were in Duluth, but the report illustrates how even eighteen years after Park Point returned as part of Duluth, the two communities had not finished melding together in the minds of their citizens. Not all Park Pointers took the event in stride. The Board had difficulties arranging for a temporary ferry to make crossings. Eventually, the tug Pacific was called on to act as ferry, but before that had been arranged the Board of Public Works had received an earful from angry Park Pointers. Many used their telephones to let the Board know their disgruntled state. The paper reported about one particularly angry Park Pointer who scoffed at the idea that the bridge would be unsafe in the gale and “yelled over the phone that the Board ought to get a couple of four-year-old children to run the ferry if they were afraid to do it themselves.” The Board retorted that the caller would certainly get the job himself if he were to apply. The newspaper also mentioned that a woman called the paper to report that the aerial bridge’s car had been “swept away and that it was riding the waves out in the middle of the lake.” She was mistaken.

Temporary ferry service such as that provided by the Pacific was employed every twelve to eighteen months when bridge operators overhauled the structure. In the bridge’s first few years, its arguably relaxed schedule allowed operators twenty minutes between trips to perform any maintenance, and with redundant equipment at hand, broken parts could be quickly swapped out and repaired at another time rather than shut the bridge down to repair the parts in place.

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