Did actor Sean Penn help build Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge?

This month's "Ask the Historian"

Originally published May 2013
The 1929-1930 crew of the Kansas City Bridge Company, which converted Duluth’s Aerial Bridge from a transfer bridge to a lift bridge. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

This month’s “Ask the Historian” column might be better described as “Ask a Silly Question.” We published the photograph at right in Crossing the Canal, our history of the Duluth Aerial Bridge. We looked a little closer at this one and, as any history-curious person might, asked ourselves a silly question, “Is the photo evidence that Academy Award© Winning actor Sean Penn time traveled to the Zenith City in 1929 to work the Duluth Aerial Bridge?”

The subject of the photograph is a crew of workers with the Kansas City Bridge Company, posing on the  bridge’s brand new road deck in the winter of 1930. From August 1929 until March 1930 these men converted the structure from a transfer bridge to a lift bridge. Please note the gentleman sitting cross-legged at the center of the photograph, smoking a cigarette. He sure looks an awful lot like Madonna’s first husband to us. (Scroll down for a close up and comparison.)

Penn is apparently not the only Hollywood notable with the ability to break the rules of physics. In May 2013 a variety of news outlets reported that rapper Jay-Z somehow time traveled to 1933 Harlem to sit on stoop—at least that’s what a vintage photograph seems to indicate.

Similar claims have been made about other celebrities, most notably Nicholas Cage. In 2011 an 1870 photograph of a Tennessee man who looks remarkably like Cage went up for sale on eBay for $1 million dollars; the seller claimed it was evidence that Cage is a vampire. But that’s silly. Everyone knows you can’t photograph a vampire.

Though we doubt Mr. Penn has the technology to visit the past, the 1930 photo begs the question, if you could time travel, why go back to work on a bridge, in Duluth, in the winter, just after the start of the Great Depression? Aren’t there better ways to spend your time while spending it in another time?

So here’s a less-silly question for you: if you could travel back in time to Duluth (or anywhere else at the Head of the Lakes) what historic event would you like to have witnessed or participated in, or which historic Duluth would you most like to meet? Let us know in the comments, and thanks for making Zenith City Online your portal to the past.

Was Sean Penn’s doppelgänger in Duluth in 1930? Or was it Penn himself, transporting through time to…work on a bridge…?

This month's "Ask the Historian"

3 Responses to Did actor Sean Penn help build Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge?

  1. Family lore has it that an uncle of mine (by marriage, and not the Penn look alike), who had learned the iron working trade in Chicago, worked on the conversion back in his home town. It was often whispered that once when he was working up high another worker tried to push him off to open a position for another man. I can’t see anyone resembling him in the photo, though.

    If I could travel back in time to witness local history, I’d like to have ridden on the fabled Montauk excursion vessel that plied the St. Louis River between downtown and Fond du Lac for many years, trips often described by my late parents.

  2. The land sale of the St. Louis Land Improvement Company, January 27th, 1891. St. Louis was a short lived townsite in Wisconsin directly across the river from New Duluth, MN.

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