Crossing the Canal Before the Bridge

The first bridge to span the Duluth Ship Canal, sketched in 1872 by Charles Johnson. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

While engineers were busy keeping the piers in place and dreaming up their replacements, Duluth had been busy digging itself out of the financial hole left by Cooke’s absence. The city received a great deal of help from farmers. When Cooke’s railroad arrived and his elevator had sprung up back in 1870, long-established trade routes which did not involve Lake Superior carried wheat from the west to the east. Duluth’s pioneers found it difficult to divert the wheat through Duluth. Between 1871 and 1874, the only grain that passed through Duluth’s elevators was sent by dealers purposefully trying to create another market. That market got a significant boost in 1876, when the farms of the newly settled Red River Valley along the border between western Minnesota and the eastern portion of the Dakota Territory started producing wheat. The eastern section of the Northern Pacific’s line had only gotten as far as Bismarck, but that was far enough. All that grain would be heading to Duluth at harvest time. In 1877 the grain trade also helped revive the LS&M, dormant since Cooke’s failure, which reorganized as the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad (in 1900 the StP&D would become absorbed by Northern Pacific).

These events couldn’t have come at a better time. After Cooke’s failure, Duluth’s population had quickly sunk to below 1,500, and in 1877 the state allowed its charter to expire: it was a city no more. But thanks to the new grain trade, it wouldn’t be gone for long. Grain and lumber would carry the Duluth Harbor into the 1880s; the iron ore industry would help keep it very busy for another hundred years after that.

But while the canal helped create commerce, it also created a problem: it had cut off the residents of Middleton from the rest of the city by literally turning Minnesota Point into an island.

Duluth’s history is absolutely reliant on the Point’s history. Government surveyor George Stuntz, the Point’s first non-native resident, established a trading post near the Superior entry in 1853, just a year after he arrived in Superior and began surveying what would become Duluth. He also established a dock and trading post the same year. When the town of Duluth was established in 1856, legend has it that local residents gathered at a picnic on Minnesota Point to select a name for the fledgling city, choosing an adaptation of the name of the first European who made a significant mark on the town’s site. That same year the town established its first park: Lafayette Square on Minnesota Point. In 1858, to help mariners locate the Superior Entry, U.S. engineers erected the Minnesota Point Lighthouse on the very spot government officials had earlier marked as “zero” for surveys of U. S. territories surrounding the lake.

Cutting off access to the mainland changed everything. Crossing the canal proved to be a major inconvenience: everything Middleton’s residents needed to survive—food, clothing, building materials—now had to be delivered by boat. Almost immediately after the Ishpeming dug the canal, ferries and a succession of temporary bridges were used to traverse the span. The first mention of a bridge over the canal and a ferry system appeared in the Minnesotian on April 18, 1872:

The Bridge over the Ship Canal on Minnesota Point remains undisturbed. The City Fathers have been consulting with Engineer Gaw as to the best and most economical arrangement of crossing it when the time comes to remove the Bridge. It has been nearly concluded to project slips 20 by 60 feet into Lake Avenue on each side of the Canal and run a scow-boat ferry by a copper wire rope to be dropped to the bottom of the Canal whenever vessels need to pass in or out. Two men will work it, and the cost will not be great.

A week later, the Minnesotian announced the establishment of a ferry system: “Arrangements have been perfected by the city with S. L. Secrest and Thos. Brunette to maintain a ferry at the canal during the summer. They propose to run small boats for passengers and scows for teams. The former will run from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. and the latter from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. The contract price is $14 a day.” In 1874 Duluthians spent $962 building a temporary suspension bridge “of rough wooden towers with cables and a six-foot-wide platform,” but workers didn’t complete it until February, two months before it had to be removed for the shipping season. When in place, the bridge could barely handle a breeze and often “swayed dangerously” in the wind. It tossed so badly during storms that residents passed back and forth on “hands and knees.” Middleton residents grew increasingly impatient with the rest of Duluth; they felt neglected and, understandably, cut off.

When Duluth lost its charter in 1877, Middleton residents— frustrated that little had been done to connect them with the rest of the city—decided to put even more distance between themselves and their neighbors than had the canal. They elected to maintain separate corporation status from Duluth and begin to call their community “Park Point,” a term that had been in use informally for some time. (Rice’s Point, including the West End, also separated itself from Duluth.) The Park Pointers even considered annexing to Wisconsin where they would be “treated more fairly.”

In 1881 the community officially became the Village of Park Point, electing R. H. Palmer as its president. It then set its sights on the canal problem. At some point prior to this, use of the winter suspension bridge ended. After an 1881 application by J. M. Nutt to operate a ferry across the canal was denied, Pointers took matters into their own hands the following year, when “an appropriation of $25 was made for benefit of a bridge across the canal.” More cash followed, but hardly enough to build a bridge; the community instead used the money to build “a sort of board walk…laid across the ice.” This structure proved particularly difficult to navigate, and accounts of Park Pointers crawling across it were frequent.

In 1883 village trustees appointed Charles Winters “superintendent of repairs on the ship canal bridge” and adopted regulations for a ferry service that called for a tariff on crossings of “five cents for a single trip” and, for families, a flat monthly rate of one dollar; groceries cost between twenty-five and fifty cents a month. Mr. Winters also became the ferry’s only licensed operator, expected to be available weekdays from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and until 11 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

In 1884 Park Point handed the canal crossing question back to Duluth when it adopted a resolution “permitting the Village of Duluth to build and maintain a combined wagon and railroad draw bridge across the ship canal.” Unfortunately for the Pointers, Duluth didn’t build the bridge.