Aerial Bridge Operators 1905 – 2008
From Crossing the Canal: An Illustrated History of Duluth’s Aerial Bridge, copyright © 2008, Zenith City Press, Duluth, Minnesota
Aerial Transfer Bridge Operators
The Duluth Aerial Transfer Bridge operated very much like a streetcar trolley, and indeed ran on streetcar motors. Duluthians lucky enough to have ridden on the bridge remember that it rode very smoothly and wasn’t too loud—you didn’t have to shout to have a conversation during a crossing. And like a streetcar, operators used a removable handle at the “front” of the ferry car to set the bridge in motion; for the return trip, the handle was moved to the other end of the car, now moving in the opposite direction.
Only a handful of people operated the ferry bridge, including long-time bridge boss Leonard Green (see next page). Thomas White started in 1905 and in 1918 became the only operator to die on the bridge (see page 110). John Hicken also started on the bridge that first year and stayed on the job until his death from pneumonia in 1928, just a year before the bridge was converted to lift. That year a newspaper article on Hicken estimated that he had traveled 120,000 miles—300 feet at a time—and had taken on 25 million passengers before 1923. But Hicken wasn’t worried about stats. “What’s a couple million people between friends,” he joked with the reporter. He was looking forward to working on the lift bridge except for one thing: his workday would go by without the companionship of his passengers.
William Maynard worked the bridge from 1916 to 1918, then returned in 1932 to operate the lift bridge for another thirteen years. James Murray began as an operator in 1924; when the span converted to lifting he worked as “Special Police” for the bridge. Urban Nehring joined the crew just a year before the conversion and stayed on until 1942.
Frank Lampert, who lived two houses south of the bridge on Park Point, began as operator in 1924. Unofficial records show that he retired in 1944, but newspaper articles indicate he took over as interim bridge supervisor upon Green’s death in 1944 and stayed on until Al Hass took the helm in 1946. In 2005 eighty-six-year-old Howard Boyton of Park Point told a reporter that when he controlled the old ferry car, Lampert also acted as an arbitrary gatekeeper: “Lampert would stop you, and if he knew you didn’t belong uptown, you didn’t get there. You didn’t get to go. You stayed right there. That was the end of your trip.”
Aerial Bridge Supervisors
The very first “Bridge Superintendent,” Leonard Green (pictured at right) saw the transfer bridge through all but the first three years of its life, then stewarded the aerial lift bridge for the first fourteen years of its life. A lifelong Duluthian, Green had worked the big lake as a sailor for years, working his way from fireman to marine engineer. He crewed on several tugs in the Duluth-Superior Harbor, including various fishing boats operated by the A. Booth fisheries, the Corona and the steamer Bon Ami, the first vessel to pass under the Duluth Aerial Transfer Bridge from the lakeward side in 1905. Before coming aboard the bridge, he worked as a stationary engineer for Duluth’s grand Spalding Hotel.
In 1943 Green told the press he considered operating the bridge “the perfect job for an exsailor…. It’s a good job, and I like it.” Sixty-two years later, his daughter Dorothy Hubert emphasized that point, telling reporters, “The bridge and the harbor were his life. Even when he was home, he was very aware of what was going on in the harbor.” He may have loved the ferry bridge, but he also recognized when it was becoming obsolete. He told the paper that as the ferry bridge neared the end of its life, lines of waiting vehicles stretched for blocks, and many drivers cursed him for the delay. “The present bridge certainly is an improvement over the other one,” he said.
Green treated his crew like family. In 2005 Hubert told the Duluth News Tribune that the crew often got together socially, sometimes getting their families together as well. “They’d all get their wives and go out for a big picnic once a year,” she said. “That was always fun. He worked well with his men. He thought a lot of them.” Besides Dorothy, Green and his wife Helen raised three other children in their home in Duluth’s East Hillside neighborhood. Green lived his entire life in Duluth and never retired. He died of a stroke in 1944.
Frank Lampert temporarily took over supervisor duties until 1946, when Al Hass became only the second man in fifty years to officially hold the title “Bridge Superintendent.” Unlike Green, an old sailor, Hass had a much less likely start for a bridge operator: his first job was in a lumber camp, far from any marine activity.
Born in Triumph, Minnesota (near Albert Lea), in 1902, Hass and his family moved to Tenstrike (northeast of Bemidji) in 1911 where he eventually went to work in the logging camp. He moved to Duluth in 1926 (his wife’s doctor suggested the move to relieve her hay fever suffering) and sold vacuum cleaners as he studied for an electrician’s license, which he parlayed into a job with Commercial Electric.
By 1929 he was working on the bridge’s electric components during its conversion from a transfer bridge to a lift bridge. When he finished his work for Commercial Electric, he went to work on the bridge as one of its operators. He had already impressed Leonard Green with his work on the bridge conversion, so Green only had one question for him at his interview: “Are you used to heights?” After Hass explained that his work previously required him to climb telephone poles, he got the job.
As bridge boss, Hass’s problem-solving abilities came in handy. He extended the life of the bridge’s batteries (see page 147), worked on ways of protecting the radar antenna from falling ice, and tried to devise a way to prevent people from attempting to cling to the bottom of the bridge and “hitch a ride,” a problem that has plagued operators since the bridge’s 1929 conversion. During his tenure on the bridge, the operators house was warmed by a coal-fired stove, and operators had to carry the coal in bags slung over their shoulders, a two-story climb. (None of the operators appreciated this aspect of the job, and some turned it into a bit of a game, making sure to leave just a single chunk of coal for the next operator on duty simply to avoid making another trip to the bin and back.) It was also on his watch that the bridge operators’ ritual lunchtime cribbage matches came to a halt. “Someone complained to the city fathers and we had to quit,” he explained.
Hass and his first wife Edith raised two children in Duluth before her death in 1963; he later remarried and became the stepparent of his wife Lorraine’s three children. Hass died in 1993, twenty-five years after retiring in 1968. His thirty-seven years on the bridge was the longest any one person worked on the span.
Two years after Robert O. Brown took the reins from Hass in 1968, he told reporters that as a kid growing up in Duluth’s West End he wished that someday he could work on the bridge—he rode the transfer bridge often as a youngster. After high school he served as a Merchant Marine and later worked for Clyde Iron before taking a job with Commercial Electric along with his predecessor, Al Hass. He worked with Hass on wiring the bridge’s electrical system during the 1929 conversion; while Hass got an operator’s gig out of the job, Brown had to take a job with Marshall-Wells and wait eleven years before another bridge operator position opened up. It took another twenty-seven year before he became the Bridge Supervisor. (Over the years, “Superintendent” was changed to “Chief Bridge Operator” and ultimately “Bridge Supervisor.”)
Along with operating the bridge, Brown was known around Duluth for his knowledge of maritime history. Over the years he became the bridge’s unofficial spokesman. When Park Pointers voiced their frustration over the number of lifts the bridge made, it was Brown who met with them and explained the reasoning behind the lifting frequency. He also gave lectures on the bridge and its history to community groups. His love of history made him a key player in the development of the Lake Superior Marine Museum. “He was among the first to volunteer to gather artifacts and put up displays,” remembered museum curator C. Patrick Labadie in 1983. “I can’t begin to remember the number of times I consulted Bob for information about ships or the waterfront.”
Besides his roles as bridge boss and ambassador, Brown and his wife Vivian raised three sons and two daughters in their Park Point home, just two blocks south of the bridge. In 2005 his daughter Charlotte told the Duluth News Tribune, “We lived and breathed that bridge.” Brown and his wife retired to Phoenix in 1974, where he died ten years later. Upon his retirement he told the paper, “Never in my life have I had to drag my feet to go to work…it has been a wonderful career.”
If seniority had anything to do with it, it was a close call to pick Brown’s successor, but Harold Bilsey did have a right to claim an edge, even if it was only fifteen days’ worth. Bilsey lifted the bridge for the first time on September 16, 1946 Richard Lyons, October 1 of the same year. Bilsey took over from Brown, but Lyons took his turn as well, and both would serve as Bridge Supervisor for just two years, the shortest tenure of any of the bridge’s supervisors. In the end, Lyons put in twenty-three months and fifteen days more that his work companion of over thirty years.
Both men were lifelong Duluthians. Bilsey grew up in West Duluth and graduated from Denfeld High School in 1931. His father owned Bilsey Grocery in West Duluth, but when he died in 1925, Bilsey and his stepbrothers and mother were left to run the store; young Harold learned how to cut meat. In World War II he signed on with the Navy and served two years aboard the USS Iowa. He returned to Duluth with a taste for the sea, and after a brief stint with Coolerator took a job that allowed him to stay in close contact with ships and ore boats. The skills he learned in his father’s grocery never left him; even after he took the job as bridge operator, Bilsey moonlighted as a butcher. Bilsey and his wife Clara raised two daughters in Duluth. After he retired in 1976 they moved to Apple Valley, Minnesota, to be closer to their daughter Barbara and her children. He died in 2003.
Lyons was also a Denfeld grad who signed on with the bridge after serving in World War II, but he was an Army man. His sons remember that he had stories upon stories about the bridge, many of them punctuated by Lyon’s well-developed sense of humor. He often gave bridge tours to classes of schoolchildren, and used to tell of one particularly serious teacher he had some fun with. When asked what an inbound freighter was carrying, he told her “post holes.” The teacher made sure each of her charges listened seriously. “How will the post holes be used?” she asked. “They wrap sheet metal around them and make heating ducts,” he replied, deadpan. He also pointed out that another ship was loaded with “bladeless knives without handles.” The teacher never got the joke, but Lyons and his fellow operators enjoyed a good laugh afterward.
Of course, Lyons took his job seriously as well. During a storm in 1975 (his sons believe it may have been November 10, the night the Edmund Fitzgerald sank), the high winds were causing the bridge to rock dramatically. Fearing for his life, the operator on duty climbed off the bridge and found shelter and a phone at the Army Reserve Center on Park Point, and then he called Lyons. Two of Lyons’ sons— grown men at this point—drove him down to the bridge. They parked right on the span and climbed to the operators house. Lowell Lyons told the Duluth News Tribune in 2005 that the wind speed gauge in the operator’s house read over one hundred miles per hour, and the canal’s waters came right through the bottom of the lift span’s grate-like roadway. Lowell jokes that their car “got a good wash” that night. Lyons retired in 1978. Lowell recalled how Lyons often told him, “You have to love what you do or it’s just not worth it.” And his dad obviously loved his job. “Dad was always so proud of it,” Lowell said. “He took pride in how well it ran.”
When Don Bowen took over as bridge supervisor after Lyons retired, he was just the sixth man to hold the title—but the fourth already in the 1970s. Unlike most of his predecessors, Bowen was not a lifelong Duluthian but a vagabond of sorts before landing his career job. He was born in the Zenith City, but grew up on the Iron Range, graduating from Cook High School. He lived in St. Paul, Chicago, California, and even Hawaii doing everything from driving truck to maintaining naval airplanes before landing back in Duluth. He took a bridge operator position in 1957.
On the bridge, Bowen earned a reputation for his ability to handle winter maintenance work in extreme cold. He said that despite its coal stove, the old steel operators house got plenty cold in the winter because of the icy winds that arrived at the bridge unabated once they cleared Spirit Mountain—or as he put it, the bridge was the wind’s “first barrier since the Duluth Zoo.” At least once he was called on to perform heroics beyond climbing the bridge in extreme cold to make repairs. Somehow a young girl had gotten about halfway across the lift span when it started to raise. She panicked and started to run. As the bridge raised, Bowen raced down the operators house stairs two at a time and chased after the girl. “I caught her right near the edge,” he told reporters. “But the bridge was forty feet off by that time and she was going to run right off.”
Bowen loved his job, but once joked with the Duluth News Tribune that “The trouble is, everyone in the city of Duluth is your boss. They all feel they own the bridge.” He recalled how he had once received a phone call in the middle of the night from a citizen who had said he heard a boat signal at least three times to lift the bridge and the bridge hadn’t responded. “Would we please raise it,” Bowen recalled him asking, “’cause he was a taxpayer and didn’t want his bridge busted.”
A year before he retired, Bowen joked with the Minneapolis Tribune that “As long as I get the bridge out of the way, I don’t get into trouble.” While he was staying out of trouble he and his wife Marion raised three children. After leaving the bridge in 1982 he retired to Arizona, where he died in February 2006.
Bowen left the bridge in the hands of a relative rookie, as far as bridge supervisors go. He and the three supervisors before him had each been on the bridge at least twenty years before becoming boss. But in 1982 Steve Douville had only a decade under his belt. Like many of his fellow bridge operators, he is a lifelong Duluthian and an old Navy man. His four-year stint in the service ended in 1972, just before he went to work raising the bridge. His brother-in-law had seen an ad for the job in the newspaper, and showed it to Douville. “That’s something you could do,” he had said. Ten years later Douville was in charge. During his tenure the bridge’s operations would go from being controlled by levers and belts to computers—and both systems had their problems.
Douville’s fellow operators have long been impressed by his problem-solving abilities. Bridge operator Jim Wall once said of his boss, “If something breaks and we don’t have it, he might know he has something at his house he can make work, and then he’ll go quick and get it.” It’s a good thing, then, that Douville was at the helm during and after two of the bridge’s most extensive renovations since it was converted in 1929. The refitting in 1986 caused more problems than it had solved, and Douville had to help figure out why.
Douville also witnessed a lot of mishaps, some of them tragic: a car/bus accident on the bridge as the bridge was about to lift for an incoming ship, the nineteen-year-old Grand Rapids man who died trying to hitch a ride, the woman who died in 1990 after panicking. He also encountered incidents in which the foolhardy got lucky: St. Cloud State college students trying to see how far out over the canal they could reach by “climbing” under the bridge’s lift span, the man who climbed one of the bridge’s towers and then crawled across the top span on a dare (twice!), and a Vista fleet pilot who tried to see how close his vessel could get to the bridge before it lifted (he misjudged and collided with the bridge; he lost his job and his pilot’s license.) There have also been many sailboat captains who have misjudged their mast height and collided with the bridge. In case the rigging becomes entangled with the bridge, the operators have a rule for sailboat collisions: no lifting until the vessel has cleared; they don’t want to lift a sailboat out of the water.
At the time of Douville’s retirement in 2005, Director of Public Works Dick Larson (Douville’s boss), emphasized not only Douville’s knack for fixing the bridge, but his character as well. “[Steve] lives and breathes the bridge, and really cares about it,” he told the Duluth News Tribune in 2005. “He’s going to be a hard guy to replace,” Wall added. “He is the bridge.”
Since his retirement, Douville and his wife Patty have remained in Duluth while their children Katheryn and Kevin attend college. So far Douville’s retirement been too busy for him to take the time to spend on any hobbies.
Larson may have thought the task of replacing Douville was difficult, but luckily he had another former Navy man on the bridge: Ryan Beamer. If you ever meet him, though, don’t start by joking, “I bet your job has its ups and downs.” The joke has been directed at bridge operators for years, and lazy copyeditors have relied on it as a headline grabber since at least the 1940s. But Beamer knew the joke long before he ever set foot on the bridge; prior to going to work on the span, he had served in the Navy as a submariner. Beamer spent five years as an electronics technician on the USS Kamehameha, a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine.
But unlike most past bridge bosses, Beamer is not a Duluth native. He grew up in Moose Lake, Minnesota, before joining the Navy. During shore duty in the Twin Cities Beamer met his future wife Cassi and they eventually settled in Duluth. Cassi saw the ad for operator’s job in the paper: its qualifications matched Beamer’s skills.
Beamer seems focused on the bridge’s safe operation, and that includes the safety not only of the operators and those traversing the bridge, but too often careless or reckless tourists. In 2006 he told the Duluth Budgeteer that outside of maintenance work an operator’s job isn’t too physically demanding, but the vigilance required can be draining. “Saturdays and Sundays in the middle of summer get stressful,” he said. “You don’t sit down. You are constantly standing there, watching traffic, watching boats, watching pedestrians, and keeping everybody safe.” He is most alarmed by parents who don’t recognize the danger of the lifting span. “You see people picking up their kid to hang on the bridge as it goes up,” he said. “And [they] don’t realize that it moves about a foot a second.” Despite several accidents over the years, including deaths in 1932 and 1982, “people attempting to hang on remains a daily occurrence in the summer months.… You have to be vigilant or people get hurt.”
Besides supervising the bridge’s operation, Beamer and his wife Cassi stay busy raising their four children just outside Duluth. If he wants to keep up with his old boss, he’ll be working his job long after the kids graduate college: as of this writing he needs to put in another twenty-three years to catch Steve Douville.
As of 2010 forty-nine persons—forty-eight men and one woman—have officially held the title of Aerial Lift Bridge Operator.
(Key: Name, Years Worked, Total Years on Bridge, notes)
Leonard Green 1908 – 1944 36 1908 – 1944
Frank Lampert 1921 – 1944 24 1944 – 1946 Interim, not official
Alfred Hass 1930 – 1967 37 1946 – 1968
Robert Brown 1941 – 1974 33 1968 – 1974
Harold Bilsey 1946 – 1976 30 1974 – 1976
Richard “Dick” Lyons 1946 – 1977 31 1976 – 1978
Don Bowen 1957 – 1982 25 1978 – 1982
Steve Douville 1972 – 2005 33 1982 – 2005
Ryan Beamer 1998 – on the job 2005 –
(Key: Name, Years Worked, Total Years on Bridge, notes)
Thomas White 1905 – 1918 13 killed on bridge
John Hicken 1905 – 1928 23
William Maynard 1916 – 18, 1932 – 45 15
James Murray 1924 – 1941 17 “Special Police” 1931 – 41
Urban Nehring 1928 – 1942 14
Doug Creighton 1930 – 1942 22
Charles Landre 1930 – 1955 25
Armas Vanhala 1931 – 1955 25
Hartley Ness 1942 – 1970 28
Art Gressner 1942 – 1972 30
Milt Anderson 1945 – 1970 25
Cliff Lanthier 1946 – 1966 20
Jim Milne 1955 – 1956 1
Clarence Cohler 1956 – 1977 21
Dennis Peterson 1967 4 months
Alva Eastman 1967 – 1984 17
Don Berryhill 1968 – 1970 2 Suffered heart attack on duty; died enroute to the hospital
Ernie Shelton 1970 – 1976 6
Chuck Anderson 1970 – 1973 3
Mike Vuksich 1970 – 1981 11
Gaylord Korhonen 1973 – 2003 29
Roger Braff 1974 – 1988 14
George Priley 1976 – 1989 13
Jim Wall 1976 – 2007 29
Al Kennedy 1977 – 1998 21 Kennedy recorded the warning message that plays before each bridge lift; ironically, he lost his voice before he retired
Leo Stepanek 1979 – 1996 17
Thom Reistad 1981 – 1986 5
Don Olson 1982 – 2001 19
Bob Wilcox 1984 – 2000 16
Darrel Moe 1986 – 1987 1
Doug Slosson 1987 on the job
Mike Geist 1989 – 1998 9
Paul Thomas 1990 on the job
George Flaim 1996 on the job
Dick Shaul 1998 on the job
Paula Hanela 2001 on the job First woman to work as an aerial bridge operator
Scott Hill 2001 on the job
Dave Ceryes 2003 on the job
Dale Mitchell 2005 on the job
Tim Cain 2007 on the job